“Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris’s balancing act
Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC comedy series Black-ish, is talking about the N-word. He and his colleagues are assembled in the writers’ room of the show’s Burbank offices on a June morning, and the conversation has turned to whether Jack, the youngest son in the show’s Johnson family, should say the word in an upcoming episode. The boy is 6, and what viewer wants to hear that? “I think it’s not likable,” says Barris. “You think it’s not likable to use it even in a song?” one writer asks.
The show hasn’t backed away from prickly topics before, from homophobia in the African American community to whether you can be black and Republican at the same time (turns out, no). It’s poked fun at the sacred, from the Harlem Renaissance (“Those dudes are hilarious with their trick dunks and the confetti buckets”) to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (one son shrugs, saying he “always kind of zoned out when people started to tell me about their dreams”). But the N-word, on a family show, coming out of the mouth of a grade-school boy?
The word, Barris says, “felt like low-hanging fruit last year. Everyone was like, ‘Of course they’re gonna try to do this,’ which is why we didn’t.” But when Barris was planning the second season, which begins this month, the topic proved too tempting to resist. “Ordinarily, you’re not supposed to talk about religion, race, politics,” Barris says. “We’re like, ‘Let’s talk about all those things.’” In the writers’ room, the discussion moves from the N-word to why jokes about black people are so often taboo but jokes about fat people aren’t. (“You can’t get on a treadmill and get less Asian,” a writer cracks.)
Barris takes these conversations seriously. The series is his life, after all, or at least a 22-minute TV version of it. Like Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), the show’s blustering but well-meaning dad, Barris grew up in a poor neighborhood in L.A. before finding his way out. Also like Dre, he’s married to a doctor named Rainbow (“Bow” for short) and lives with his family in an affluent suburb in the Valley, where most of his kids’ friends are white. Flies in the buttermilk, he calls his three girls and two boys. Barris came up with the idea for Black-ish two years ago: “I looked around, and what I remember black being, my kids were a filtered-down version of that,” he says. “They were ‘black-ish.’”
And while black kids like his were becoming, in his eyes, less black, everybody else was becoming more so, from Justin Timberlake to South Korean b-boys. For Dre, the show’s patriarch, this cultural shift is, to say the least, discomfiting. Black people need to hold on to what’s theirs, he bellows, and everyone else needs to quit poaching. Calling the series Black-ish (rather than, say, The Johnsons) represents a break with sitcom tradition, in which shows about families are either named after the clans themselves or have innocuous titles, albeit sometimes intentionally ironic ones (Good Times, All in the Family). With a title like Black-ish, you know what’s coming. It’s a challenge, and a dis. Who are you to say I’m not black, or not black enough?
The series comes at a time when other shows starring minority leads — Empire, Fresh Off the Boat, How to Get Away With Murder — have created talk of the changing face of network TV. It’s a shift from what the NAACP dubbed the “virtual whiteout” of 1999, when a complete lack of new shows with people of color in the lead roles shamed the networks into agreeing to take steps to diversify.
When ABC picked up Black-ish in 2014, the networks were in the midst of a push for more diverse programming. Deadline, an online trade magazine, dubbed it “the year of ethnic castings.” (The infamous article enraged readers, most notably showrunner Shonda Rhimes, by wondering if the move toward casting minorities was “too much of a good thing.”) There were new prime-time shows featuring largely Latino casts (Jane the Virgin) and an Asian American romantic male lead (Selfie). Moral rightness aside, the move made financial sense: According to a 2015 report on TV viewership, median ratings for shows with minority actors eclipsed those with less diverse casts. Barris got offers everywhere he pitched the series, including from NBC, FX, and USA.
None of the other new series, however, has been so aggressively and determinedly about race. The show has received largely positive, often enthusiastic, reviews — as well as an Emmy nod for Anthony Anderson — but the subject matter has led to some inevitable criticism. Even before the first episode aired, Barris was fielding reviews saying that the show presented “racism … with a smile”; critics bristled at everything from the name to the fact that the Johnsons are so well-to-do.
The show’s head-on examination of race feels particularly remarkable because it isn’t on cable: It’s on ABC, in prime time, on Wednesday night — reaching 7 million viewers. With Black-ish, Barris has set a high bar for himself and his writers: Address social issues like gun violence at a time when cops are shooting unarmed black men in the streets, but don’t hit people over the head with them. Deal with racial caricatures without having the show itself lapse into caricature. Keep the white people from just being fall guys or stooges or setups for jokes. Most — and most difficult — of all: Be funny.
Barris is 41 years old and 6 foot 4, with a ready laugh and sloe-eyed good looks. This morning he’s wearing an untucked blue work shirt that nearly covers large tattoos, in looping script, on his chest and forearms. Born in Inglewood, he was the second youngest of five kids, though his younger brother died of leukemia at 4. He was named Kenya because his father, who had taken an interest in returning to the motherland, went to that country and fell in love with it. (“It could have went way worse,” Barris laughs.) His parents divorced when he was 8; nearly all of his friends came from single-parent homes. “It used to be if I walked in one of my boys’ house and I saw a guy walking around, I’d be like, ‘Who’s that dude?’” he remembers. “And they’re like, ‘That’s my dad.’ ‘Oh, is he visiting or something?’ And they’d be like, ‘No, no, he lives here.’ It was weird almost.”
As a boy, Barris suffered from bouts of asthma and would have to “stay in the house and kind of watch the other kids play. Watching through the window, I just started reading book after book after book.” When his father lost a lung in a chemical accident at General Motors, his mother used her half of the settlement to move the family to a house near Hancock Park, “from ashy to classy,” as Barris remembers it. He was in the seventh grade. “It was literally coming from an all-black environment to a predominantly white one,” he says. In Inglewood, his family might have been broke, but so were the neighbors. Not so in their new neighborhood. “I thought we had come into some money,” he says. “But we really hadn’t, compared to everyone else.” (His first pilot, La La Land, was inspired by this experience and featured white kids trying to make a name for themselves by “beating the black kid from Inglewood’s ass.”)
After graduating from Daniel Murphy, an all-boys Catholic high school midway between the La Brea Tar Pits and the Wilshire Country Club, Barris entered Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college with roots dating back to Reconstruction. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk as a teacher there; civil-rights activist Hosea Williams and writer James Weldon Johnson are among its alumni. Barris says of his trajectory from a black neighborhood to a white suburb to one of the country’s most storied black universities, “I didn’t think at the time it taught me anything.” But “looking back, it definitely gave me an appreciation for both sides.” Two of his influences, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese, made similarly transformative moves — Brooklyn to Morehouse for Lee, the Bronx to NYU for Scorsese. “I think that’s what television’s missing, an understanding that we’re a multibridged society that has a lot of different paths.”
Barris returned to L.A. in 1997 and began writing for shows like Soul Food and Girlfriends. In 2003, he co-created America’s Next Top Model alongside the show’s host, Tyra Banks, whom he’s known since he was 4. Over the years, he has sold 19 pilots — more than one a year. Four were shot, and three were turned into series. “I’ve written comedy, reality, sketch, drama,” Barris says, “and comedy is harder than anything.” Black-ish has been his greatest critical success, but it hasn’t slowed down his output. In addition to the show, he is co-writing and producing a movie about a white guy who gets in an accident and wakes up to find that Ice Cube is inhabiting his brain. And then there’s the Good Times movie he is set to write, an adaptation of Norman Lear’s 1970s TV series about a black family living in a Chicago housing project. The original Good Times is a classic. But it’s also a cautionary tale for a sitcom like Black-ish: Its early hopes of tackling serious issues gave way to “dy-no-mite”-fueled buffoonery when CBS decided audiences would rather see Jimmie Walker clown every week than watch episodes about, say, poverty and racism.
Barris’s writers’ room is spare — other than the wall-to-wall white boards covered with story ideas (“Bow discovers everyone at work is afraid of her,” one reads) and a lone Christmas ornament (a grinning black elf clutching a bottle of Hennessy) in the center of the table, it could be any conference room in any office in the country. This morning, the writers are huddled around a yearbook from Santa Monica High, class of 1981, that fellow writer Yvette Lee Bowser has brought in. One writer notices that there are big x’s over several faces. “I x-ed out a lot of people,” says Bowser. “I x-ed out my nemeses.” “Your kill list,” says another writer.
The biggest obstacle for a black writer in Hollywood, says Barris, is a lack of access to the people who can recommend you for jobs — even those who take a chance on you might not feel all that comfortable having you around. In an industry where only 13.7 percent of staff writing jobs are held by minorities, Barris’s crew of writers is unusually diverse: four black women, four black men, three white women, three white men, and one Indian man. At an earlier meeting, the black writers had gone around and talked about the number of times that they had been called the N-word, and Bowser had shared a story about the high school boy a few years older who had called her “a lazy N-word” back when they were both working at the local supermarket. (She went on to write and produce A Different World, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and Living Single.) Everyone wanted to see the picture of that guy.
Many of these anecdotes eventually appear in the show. An episode about the ethics of spanking (“Crime and Punishment,” which won a Television Academy Honors award) was born out of multiple childhood memories. (The writer from India had been spanked with a rolling pin.) “The majority of the world spanks their kids,” Barris says, “and the majority of this country actually spanks their kids. It is really a coastal point of view that people don’t.” Bowser was one of the few writers to admit to spanking. “There was one time I spanked my son,” Bowser says, “and he cried that one tear, like Denzel in Glory. That made it into the show.”
So has much of Barris’s life. Barris loves Sizzler; as a kid, he really loved it. But when he tried to take his own kids to Sizzler, they were horrified that they had to eat off trays and that there was a sneeze guard over the salad bar. “I was like, ‘I hate you kids,’” Barris says. “‘I hate every one of you.’” He tells me, “They had totally sucked all of the specialness out of it for me. And it was my fault.”
On the show, Sizzler became Beef Plantation. The all-you-can-eat shrimp became pay-what-you-weigh steak. But the underlying experience remained the same for both dads, Dre and Kenya: We bust our humps to give you kids a better life, and then once you have it, what happens? You turn up your noses at Sizzler!
Barris’s marriage is also transmuted, perhaps even more clearly, onto the screen, especially in the war stories Dre and Bow share at the end of long days. On one occasion, Barris made a thousand-dollar bet that one of his writers couldn’t consume an entire tub of Red Vines in two hours. The writer gave it a valiant go — think Cool Hand Luke, but with licorice — but failed, spectacularly, in the middle of a meeting. (The writer’s “reversal of fortune,” as competitive eaters like to dub it, came up looking like blood.) “I’ll come home and tell Bow, ‘He couldn’t finish the Red Vines! He had to pay me a thousand dollars,’” he says. “And she’s like, ‘That’s great. I almost killed a little girl today.’”
For Bow — real and fictional — work is grim, a place where people come into the ER with hatchets sticking out of their heads. “There’s days where he’ll say, ‘Hey, babe, I’m going to be at work late,’ and then I see pictures and they’re in their room with Champagne,” says Rainbow. “And I’m like, ‘That wasn’t really how my day went.’ But he’s working. Obviously, it is work. It’s just done in a way that’s hard for people to understand, sitting around and talking about life.”
In Barris’s corner office, about two dozen steps from his writers’ room, it can be especially difficult to tell where his real life and family end and his TV life and family begin. The walls are decorated with group photos of both families, the Johnsons and the Barrises, side by side. His shelf is loaded down with quality booze, but there’s also a case of grape soda, a prop, he says. When he tells his stories, you see and hear both versions, TV and reality. On TV, post–Beef Plantation, Dad loses it and forces the kids to get jobs (to the parents’ horror, the two youngest become beggars). In real life, post-Sizzler, Dad loses it and turns off the family’s internet connection, then discovers his kids tapping into the neighbors’ Wi-Fi. Barris sees the absurdity of struggling to give your kids a more comfortable life and then complaining that they’re comfortable, but you won’t hear Dre, his doppelgänger, point it out. When Dre tries to give his spoiled kids “the gift of hunger” by suggesting they eat bologna-and-baking-soda sandwiches, it’s Bow, not Dre, who’s the voice of reason. “I did not grow up eating baking soda,” she tells him. “And I turned out fine.”
“Dre is trying to hold on to what he feels it means to be a black family but is realizing that it’s a losing battle,” says Barris. A lot of what he considers authentically black is everything that Bow, a lighter-skinned, mixed-race woman raised by middle-class hippies, isn’t. And a lot of it is rooted in pain.
The series can also be read as Barris’s rueful comment on his own life. In its first episode, Dre, a successful adman, thinks he’s getting a coveted executive position, only to learn he’s been promoted to senior VP, Urban Division (as he notes bitterly, “That’s code for ‘black stuff’”). It’s a perfect sitcom setup: The guy who bemoans how black people are becoming less black now has to use his knowledge of blackness to sell goods and services to other black people. It’s a telling move from Barris, who can’t miss the parallels between his own job and Dre’s.
The show’s plum place in the lineup — right after the top-rated Modern Family — has helped boost overall ratings. Its success, as well as that of shows like Empire, which had the fastest-growing viewership of any show in years, sent a clear message to the networks, which have been losing audiences to cable and premium channels, and now to Amazon and Netflix, that viewers will support diverse programming slates. This spring, the networks ordered 73 pilots of new series with black actors in lead or supporting roles for the 2015–16 season. There will be new shows starring Mike Epps (Uncle Buck), Morris Chestnut (Rosewood), and Cuba Gooding Jr. (American Crime Story).
If the show’s time slot has given it a lift, though, it has also hurt its chances at building black viewership by placing it up against what Barris calls “the juggernaut” of Empire. “Our demographic is like 22, 23 percent black,” he says — about the same percentage as Modern Family’s. In the hopes of increasing those numbers, ABC is hiring a PR company to attract more black viewers.
In the new season of Black-ish there’s light fare, including a story about one daughter getting her driver’s license. But there are also weightier episodes in the works, Barris tells me, episodes aimed at capturing the current racial climate of the country: the storyline about the N-word and one about Dre getting a gun. “I feel like there are so many more stories out there to be told,” he says. “I think that the more we embrace those stories and those points of view, the better we become as a country for it. I know that’s putting a lot of importance on comedy, but I think it’s absolutely true.”