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Kenya Barris Explains How Tyler Perry's Epic Cameo in #blackAF Came to Life

"The stuff on the cutting room floor will make you cry."

malcolmvenable.jpg
Malcolm Venable

Reviews about #blackAF, Kenya Barris' new comedy on Netflix, have been, well, mixed-ish: some have said it's void of new ideas while others think it's great. There's no accounting for taste, of course, but in a conversation with the creator before the series aired, I tried to dig into the mind of the man who made the series, which is as familiar to black-ishas it is a departure from it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise I discovered when watching: Kenya Barris, or at least the Kenya Barris in the show, is kind of an asshole. In the series, Barris -- the man behind black-ish, co-creator of the fun flick Girls Trip, and unapologetic Norman Lear fanboy -- berates his assistant, blames his wife Joya (Rashida Jones) for everything that's not going right in the house, and curses at his children in a way that's jarring and upsetting. He is also very funny, but this persona is much different from the Kenya I've met on occasion, who's always been generous with his time, relaxed, funny, smart, and I dare say, sweet. As I giggled through the episodes, I couldn't wait to ask him: How much of the Kenya Barris on screen is the real Kenya Barris?

#blackaf
Gabriel Delerme/Netflix

"This is the writer side of me," he said via a phone call in early April, which began with him asking with sincerity how I was holding up under isolating at home. (Aww.) Of course, Fictional Kenya is some of him, he said, including the wry, sarcastic curmudgeon who's perpetually a little annoyed with everyone in his orbit. But in ways black-ish couldn't, #blackAF gives Barris -- one of a small group of influential black showrunners that's so tiny you can count them on one hand -- an opportunity to pry open his whole, complicated self in the name of comedy.

"You have to see the ridiculousness of yourself. I got to make fun of me," Barris explained. Some might assume that achieving this level of visibility and household name status would be a dream, particularly when it's incentivized by Scrooge McDuck levels of coin. Not for him; he was terrified, and said he wouldn't have done it if not for his on-screen wife Rashida Jones, who earned comedy queen bonafides on the underrated goof-fest Angie Tribeca. "She made it very comfortable for me," he told me. "I would not act again, but I feel like every writer has to act at least once."

Playing himself was risky, but the rewards are apparent. Structurally, #blackAF reads as a cross between Modern FamilyandCurb Your Enthusiasm . It's shot in a mockumentary style, on the premise that Barris' eldest daughter Drea (Iman Benson) is making a movie about her ridiculously wealthy dad and offbeat family for film school. Jerky zoom-ins and loosely formatted action between the players make it seem like we've just dropped in on the Barris brood, which includes five other kids.

A self-described "huge" fan of both Modern Fam and Curb, Barris wanted to give the family sitcom a jolt of freshness, and knew Netflix was the ideal forum. Curb's Larry David and Modern Family's Steven Levitan stepped in to give Barris support, acting pointers, and in Levitan's case, a cameo, to bring Barris' vision to life. "I'm happy with the show," he said. "But the biggest thing for me is I just want it to not suck. Right now, I want to make people laugh, and not feel as bad about their parenting."

#blackaf
Gabriel Delerme/Netflix

Free from the limits of broadcast television, Fictional Barris' view on parenting comes off as a bit dark, and shocking. He is often (hilariously) vocal about his disappointment in his kids' choices, whether it's his daughter's thot-ish clothes, or his sons' distressing lack of natural swag. The real Kenya Barris, a divorced 45-year-old father of six who had his first kid at 24, gives his alter ego a style that swings between cool-Dad relate-ability and embarrassing late-40s posturing, which earns him ridicule from his older daughters.

In one episode, Kenya and Joya decide to score some Molly and go to a hip-hop show, where, inevitably, they run into their children and humiliate each other. The net effect looks like a distinctly different parenting style, especially for black parents, that hasn't been depicted on TV before, not even by him. "I kind of grew up with my kids," he said. "There was sometimes a very thin line between parent and friend. I see a lot of myself in my kids; they're not that far away in age as my dad and mom."

As unconventional as #blackAF's family dynamics are, its probing of race and black identity are even more provocative, sometimes even uncomfortably so. The TV Barris family lives in a modernist shrine, where people wear Gucci, Balmain, and Off-White like us normals do H&M. Fictional Kenya seems caught in that classic Kanye "All Falls Down" conundrum, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if Kenya's over-appreciation or addiction to luxury goods is an attempt to floss his way out of experiencing prejudice, marginalization or racism.

Of course, he can't, and at times in the series, Fictional Kenya goes on tirades about racism (earning him conspicuous, well-timed side-eye from his wife) and anti-black conspiracy theories that seem confusing given his own gleeful participation in the consumerist systems that oppress black people in the first place. Taken at face value, Fictional Kenya's disgust with white power hierarchies and paranoia about micro aggressions seem to form a muddled, kinda woke, kinda crazy soup but then, living with double-conscious neuroticism is one of the integral parts of the black experience -- especially the higher up the food chain you go.

"There's a little conspiracy theorist in all of us, and that's real," he said, adding that initially, they thought of calling the show Because of Slavery. "We're just now getting to the point where it's legal for us to wear our hair naturally at work. We've made a lot of huge strides, but slavery, Jim Crow -- a lot of that is still in our DNA, in the codes of who we are. Sometimes I think people need a little more understanding of the tragedies black people in this country have been through, to help understand us as people."

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Netflix

#blackAF really hits its stride by the fifth episode, when it explores how black creators, fans and critics sometimes feel torn about critiquing work -- TV and film especially -- from black other artists. This debate has intensified in recent years, with some arguing that, with so few black people in a position of privilege to make movies and TV shows, black people shouldn't trash work in public because doing so will diminish opportunities for others.

Another camp insists it's healthy and important to critique work from black creators -- the backlash to Lena Waithe's Queen & Slim a significant example. In its inspired, poignant episode, Barris hops on a Zoom call with Hollywood heavyweights including Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, and Will Packer to discuss the issue...and end up insulting each others' work. Topping that, Tyler Perry, black America's most maligned creator, pops in for a guest appearance and delivers an off-the-cuff, jaw-dropping defense of his artistic freedom to do whatever he wants that we have never heard from him firsthand.

Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones, #blackAF

Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones, #blackAF

Gabriel Delerme

"Tyler is my brother, mentor and friend," Barris said. "We do different things, and he is way more successful than I am. When I called and told him what we wanted to do, he was down." Inherent in the conversation is the double standard black creators get held to -- Adam Sandler and Kevin James can make lowbrow movies and never get accused of bringing down white culture -- and the power in telling your own story, the way you want, for people you understand.

"Tyler does something a lot of people like. Who are we to say the people who enjoy his work are wrong? It should be, 'We need Tyler. We need Shonda. We need all the voices. Tyler knows his sh--, and let me tell you, the stuff on the cutting room floor -- about his mother, his aunts, being homeless to where he is now -- will make you cry."

Sometimes the show's messaging is less than subtle, but #blackAF is most teachable and most funny when it's letting the characters just be. Barris said he was mindful of criticisms that the show's cast looks almost uniformly fair-skinned, and when I ask him about those takes, his response seems to echo his intentions for the show in first place. "I respect where they're coming from. I totally understand people have those experiences [with colorism]," he said, adding that it made him a little sad that his attempt to portray his own family struck some as exclusionary. Ultimately, it showed him he has even more work to do. "My job is try to show different versions of representation. We want to get more shows, have more examples of black people on screen. My job is to uplift."

#blackAF is streaming on Netflix.