Kenya Barris just might be the best confidence man in Hollywood. With the debut of his first Netflix show BlackAF, Barris has managed to earn millions more dollars quadruple-dipping into his limited storytelling well. But after the fourth time around the playground, it seems he’s running out of steam.
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To be fair, BlackAF is nowhere near the worst show you’ll ever see. At points, it’s quite funny, and very often it’s almost charming, but most of that work is fastidiously undone by Barris’s performance as an exaggerated version of himself. This character, of course, already exists—he’s currently being depicted by Anthony Anderson as Andre Johnson on ABC’s hit show Black-ish. But in this realer, “blacker” version, Barris’s id is all misery and self-loathing—and somehow, the audience is meant to understand this as a perverse form of radical honesty.
Barris depicts himself as a man who essentially hates his family. He is at once striving for their recognition and approval and also resentful that he cares to have it. He is routinely unkind to and dismissive of his wife Joya (Rashida Jones in the best role she’s had in ages) and constantly insinuates that she is ungrateful for the life he has provided them. His oldest son Pops (Justin Claiborne) is subject to the same emotional abuse Andre doles out to Junior on Blackish, and he spends the vast majority of the first two episodes aggressively slut-shaming his eldest daughter Chloe (Genneya Walton). Barris’s conception of himself is that he is an underappreciated genius who cannot get those around him to recognize his superiority. As the youth say, “it’s not a good look.”
What emanates from the screen is a man deeply conflicted about his own obsessions and desires, except this time it’s also working at a meta-level. Barris has been retelling the same stories in different forms for years now. BlackAF is the fourth television show in the extended Black-ish universe, but he is still retreading his trepidation around his conception of blackness and his fixation on the white gaze. It’s only when Barris confronts this idea that BlackAF begins to approach something of an overarching thesis.
Barris’s shows have always worked on the level of the “explanatory comma.” Essentially, each of his shows takes pains to give context to the discussions and arguments that his black characters are grappling with, often with the lead’s expository voiceover doing the heavy lifting. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, it signals to black members of his audience that they are not the primary targets of his output. After all, other black people don’t need blackness explained to them. It’s a different approach than a show like Vida that intentionally does not provide cultural context or even subtitles for non-Mexican audience members. The show is made by and for the Latinx community, and building a minimum barrier of required cultural competence into the narrative is how it makes that explicit.
BlackAF’s fifth episode, “yo, between you and me… this is because of slavery” is the only one in which Barris makes a sincere effort to interrogate his desperation for white approval. Unfortunately, he doesn’t look deep enough to get at the answers that are readily available. Through the supposedly terrible work of a fictional black director, Barris grapples with the idea that black creative output suffers because everyone is too afraid to critique it. In the (false) binary he presents, white critics are too afraid to seem racist to point out when black creators fail, and black audiences are too desperate for representation to demand better art. But the problem with this narrative is that it staunchly ignores the existence of critics of color, specifically black ones. Despite working against issues like lack of access, lack of funding, and lack of institutional backing, black critics have routinely stepped in to give clear and illuminating critiques of black art that situate a work within its context. The disparate critical response between white and black critics for films like Birth of a Nation, Green Book, and Queen & Slim is all the proof you need to show that the critique Barris claims to want already exists. The work is there for the taking, but Barris refuses, perpetuating the very cycle he claims to want to break.
But in doing so, Barris unintentionally reveals that his real struggle is that he only values the opinions of white audiences and critics. Approval from his own community is meaningless if it isn’t couched in white validation. It explains why his television shows are all about “blackness” instead of about black people. In his mind, there is an essential way to exist as a black person descended from American slavery, and his television shows have all been about teasing out the limits of those boundaries.
It often feels as though Barris is operating from a scarcity mindset. He is one of a handful of successful black creators working in Hollywood right now, but he behaves as though he is still on the outside looking in. His response to that creeping imposter syndrome has been to act as a cultural ambassador who demystifies the black community to the white majority. If he achieves this, then he can position himself as an essential translator between the two groups and guarantee some longevity in the industry.
The problem with that is that black people are not particularly hard to understand if you care to do so. Black writers, directors, singers, and creators of all kinds have been translating their black experience for decades. Black canon exists and has always existed, but it takes reverence and respect to fully access it. With his television shows, Barris tries to circumvent white America’s own hegemonic laziness by spoon-feeding them a culture they only value when they can sell it. Barris can explain himself to white audiences until he’s blue in the face, but it will never resonate with them in the long term because they have no non-commercial interest in letting it.
It’s perfectly fine if Barris decides that what he wants is to be a racial translator for white people. It’s unlikely to win him any favor with black audiences, but considering the low esteem in which he holds their opinions, I don’t see that bothering him very much. But what I do want is for Barris to finally and conclusively admit to himself that he has always been making entertainment for the approval of white audiences, because in his mind, it’s the white opinions that matter.