An interview with two of Kenya Barris’s writers
Recently, I sat down and slathered my white gaze all over Black-ish creator Kenya Barris’s new semi-autobiographical Netflix sitcom, #BlackAF. I quite enjoyed it, more so than I have the little I’ve seen of his other 38 original television shows. Barris roars a bit harder in rated R form. He’s meaner, for sure. Otherwise, #BlackAF feels like your basic modern meta-sitcom, using the now cliché framing device of a documentary being filmed (this time by Kenya’s on-screen teen daughter Drea, played by Iman Benson). In tone, #BlackAF most resembles Curb Your Enthusiasm, in that it follows the life of grump, his successful career, and his familial misadventures. Though Kenya, in his first on screen role, remains a borderline bad actor, his crew’s good-ass jokes win the day.
After devouring #BlackAF, I went online and read critiques of the show on Black websites that dismissed it as, essentially, not Black enough. Several reviews pointed at a perceived lack of dark-skinned Black people with speaking parts. A couple reviews essentially said this was a show about Black people, for white people. I can’t say that I felt spoonfed Blackness, or that I gleaned anything I hadn’t previously learned from reading TheRoot.com every day, listening to Public Enemy, or memorizing Chris Rock routines.
By the time I reached episode three, titled “still…because of slavery,” I remembered that my good friend Helen Kreiger wrote for this season of #BlackAF. A white woman, Kreiger also wrote for Black-ish, but secured her first ever writing credit with episode three of #BlackAF (“Ahead of the family’s Juneteenth party, Joya struggles to confront Izzy about her dance video as Kenya stresses the importance of hygiene to his sons.”), which she penned with Black writer Esa Lewis. Both women are currently co-writing a movie that Barris will produce. I called the two women to talk about the show, their writing process, and Black people’s expectations of Kenya Barris’s work.
How did you come to work with Kenya Barris?
EL: We went to junior high school together, so I’ve pretty much known him my whole life. As we were coming up, I dabbled in writing. I wrote for The Wayans Bros. for four years, then sold a spec script for a movie. In 2018, there was an opportunity opening up on Black-ish and Kenya thought my voice would be valuable there. Black-ish got me back into his day-to-day creative world. And then when he was forming the team for #BlackAF, I lobbied to get on. I took it as an opportunity to learn from him. Everyone had great things to say about how impactful he was on influencing everyone’s writing…
HK: I got a job as Kenya’s assistant, and eventually became a writer on Black-ish, and then he brought me on for this show.
I never watched too much of Black-ish or his other shows, because I only watch things that are rated R, like life is. How does my not having seen his other work effect my viewing of this show, you think?
EL: I think if you really wanted to know unapologetically how he felt about certain things…you’re coming a lot closer to that experience with #BlackAF then you would with Black-ish, for obvious reasons.
HK: It’s a similar story to Black-ish, but I think all artists are like that to some extent, whether you’re Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino, they’re telling different versions of the same story again and again. But you can definitely see, since the first season of Black-ish, how he’s gotten more sure of himself as an artist.
He creates all his shows with a team that you’ve been on for a minute now. What do you each consider your special role on that team?
HK: I come from a big family, so I am good at writing the familial stuff. But then in terms of the Black experience, I shut my mouth and listen to the room. There are days where we’re all in the writer’s room having real intense discussions, and while I want to get involved and help the room, I have to also be conscious of not getting into something I don’t know.
EL: We have a diverse group of people with different perspectives in the writers room, and people who have polar opposite perspectives than everyone else in the room. I’m a single mom, a Black woman, so I understand a lot of the show’s themes, because I’m living them. But then I also have an interesting family dynamic, lots of brothers. Kenya, though, can do everybody’s job at every level, because he’s done it for so long…
Helen, you told me that Kenya called you the whitest person he knows. After you told me that I couldn’t help wondering if the uber-nerdy white Danny (Gil Ozeri) was partially based on you.
HK: Ha! No. Kenya has an assistant named Danny, who is possibly whiter than me, who measures his moles, and takes great care in the sun, and is very unfiltered in his dorkiness, which makes him incredibly loveable.
How did you two came to co-write episode three of #BlackAF together.
HK: Early on in the room, people were bringing in story ideas, and we had this story from Georgetown about the adultification of black girls, and we were very depressed about it, but kept thinking about it. When Kenya later in the season asked what else we wanted to do, we really wanted to focus more on the girls, all of the women in the family, so we pitched it then.
EL: We all come up with ideas, Kenya has us sitting around talking about our weekends and our families and our relationships…We put conversation starters on the board…Ultimately the showrunner is thinking about whose voice suits which story. Sometimes they needed a Black woman, or sometimes they needed two women, one Black, one not. We break the stories as a group, but then it’s about what perspectives do we want to show? Who’s gonna own those perspectives? They put me in the room with Helen, and we work so well together. She was very respectful. We had great respect for each other.
I have read a few reviews that complain that the show is not all things to all Black people. Any thoughts on that?
EL: I‘ve had this conversation. Once was with a friend of mine who called me and asked if it was a conscious decision to not let dark-skinned people have speaking parts on the show! I was like, What the fuck? The challenge is, when you break through like Kenya and you are looking around, your peer group is really really small. Most storytellers are just telling the stories they want to tell. Non-people-of-color writers can say whatever. Whatever!
But I feel like if it’s a Black writer, it’s really required that he has to check all the Black people got problems boxes. But then, taking all of those things into consideration makes you less unique in the marketplace, when you’re asking, Did I cover this? Did I cover that? If there’s a second season, god willing, we’ll address a lot of those issues–so long as they line up with Kenya’s experiences. But in the end, the show isn’t presented as all things Black, it’s presented as one man’s experience. Look at Rashida Jones! If they had some dark skin kids, those kids might be on the news.
Some Black writers have said it’s a show about Black people for white people.
HK: In the writer’s room, it was never about, Will white people understand this?
EL: That concept is so obnoxious to me, because that infers that we did it on purpose, and that the show is only entertaining to white people. Kenya’s content is not going to feel like other Black artists’ work. And his work is also about creating more opportunities and more vehicles and funding and mentorships for Black artists. If we have a more diverse body of Black work, you’re not going to be spending all your time worrying if Kenya’s show doesn’t have enough darker-skinned Black people. Because hopefully we’ll have three other Black shows that are addressing it. The weight is on his shoulders simply because we can name on three fingers the other Black creatives in a position like him.