Talking to 'Black-ish' Creator Kenya Barris About Putting the New Black Middle Class on Screen
We spoke to the creator behind ABC's consistently funny and cutting family comedy about politics, 'The Cosby Show,' and aspirational TV.
When ABC's Black-ish first premiered in September 2014, it was the beginning of a much larger, pivotal turn for the current television landscape. The show about a black family living in a predominantly white neighborhood uses a familiar trope ("fish out of water") to address an otherwise unique experience (race relations in the United States). Along with the premiere of Fresh Off the Boat (based on VICE host Eddie Huang's memoir), Black-ish ushered in a somewhat new idea that a central non-white family could be marketable enough to justify a prime time slot on one of the nation's largest television networks.
Centering around the upper-middle-class couple Dre (played by Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Black-ish looks at three generations of blackness from the top-down. There's Pops, Dre's dad (Laurence Fishburne), who serves as an anchor to the black culture of yore, while Dre and Bow's kids often function as a more modern counterpoint to Pops's and Dre's old ways. That the show manages to pull off cutting social commentary while remaining one of the most consistently funny shows on prime-time TV is a testament to the strong vision behind it.
That vision would belong to Kenya Barris, the creator and showrunner for Black-ish, who recognizes how unique his show is in comparison to other family sitcoms. Barris hopped on the phone with VICE to explain how the show—in an earlier incarnation—could have been about a white family. He also discusses his cognitive dissonance with The Cosby Show and preaches about the importance of showing successful black people while showing the alternate realities of black life.
VICE: So, how did Black-ish get started?
Kenya Barris: I think this was my 19th pilot? A couple of them had gotten made in some form another, but this one was the first one that had a network's commitment. I had sold a version of this [same] show probably four or five times. And I think what made the other versions different were a few things: One, the other versions did not have Laurence Fishburne and Anthony Anderson attached; and two, I don't think I was as honest in the other versions. Like when you're writing for a magazine, there's a certain swag that this magazine seems to have, and you may not even do it on purpose, but you know that this is a TIME piece or this is a Vanity Fair piece. So, inadvertently or not, you end up slanting your writing to the choir. So, when I would say, "Oh, this is a FOX pilot," or, "This is an NBC pilot," I did what I had to do. Whether it was taking a family and making them white or taking a version of my story and telling it from a different point of view. I tried to do what I thought was going to get the show picked up. And my biggest advice to anyone is: Never do that. Always tell the most honest version of your story, and from that, it's either going to happen or not.
What finally led to Black-ish as we know it on ABC?
Well, my wife is a doctor, and we had a decent life, financially. My kids were going to nice schools and had nannies. We weren't rich, but we were better off than I was growing up. And I looked around and I was like, "Who are these people?" It was the opposite of what I remembered growing up. And even going further, it was the opposite of what a little black kid would be like growing up. [My kids] were a different version of a little black kid. I started feeling like, "Was I a bit of a relic?" I still had these kind of antiquated views of what black was, and I was fighting that with my children, and my wife—who's biracial, and her mom's a hypnotherapist, and her name's Rainbow, and her dad's this white guy. It's just this totally different thing, so I felt kind of like the outsider in my family.
So the show was based around this "outsider" black father—was it always going to be Anthony Anderson?
Short answer: yes. I wrote this with Anthony in mind. We had spoken. We knew we wanted to work together, we knew wanted to do something together. Anthony, in a lot of ways, is my brother from another mother. He's from Compton; I'm from Inglewood. We've both had similar experiences. You understand if you come from that situation and are sort of now in a predominantly white world, you're constantly going to feel like you're taking a hit. And that was Anthony and my story. Now, we both have kids who are in private school and are doing things totally differently. It was a lot of those stories that we shared, and we were like, "We have to do this together!"
Let's talk about the politics of the show. How important do you think it is to show black people in high-powered careers?
Well, my parents were great parents, but they weren't doctors or lawyers. So when I watched The Cosby Show, I was like, "I wish my parents were doctors or lawyers! I want to be a doctor or a lawyer!" I love that aspirational viewpoint for kids—especially for little black kids in this day and age. We're having this time where the black middle class is expanding in a different kind of way. But the black middle class also still has a lot of holes in the "hood" because that's where they came from, or that's where their parents came from, and that's what they understand. So I really wanted to be honest and show a different viewpoint.
Speaking of careers, I remember reading a New Yorker piece claiming that Dre's career was changed from a TV writer to an advertising executive so that ABC could cut deals with advertisers.
Well, that is not true. The switch was made because the network and I didn't think that America would as easily identify with a television writer as it would with an ad executive—which we've seen since God knows how long. You know, [Darrin Stephens from] Bewitched was an ad executive. It's just a much more sort of topical job that at the same time has some of the same challenges [as being a black TV writer]. You're still often that fly in the buttermilk and you're often sort of asked to be the voice of your people. How many times has someone asked you, "Why do black people do...?" And you just want to be like, "You know what? I don't know!"
That's kind of touched upon in the first season when Dre is asked to be in charge of his company's "urban" division.
Yeah, and that was based around me. I've been on predominantly "white" shows before, and I had also been on predominantly "black" shows. I would complain that when I was on a white show they would only hire me because there was a black character or they needed a black voice. But then I would be mad if they went and hired a white dude in my position. It was that duality and I kind of felt like that's what Dre felt.
"As a creative, you have to be your truest form. You can't worry about fitting into whatever boxes people want to put you in."
Tell me about a day in the writers' room.
I think our room is mixed half and half. We have Jewish writers, and white writers, and Indian writers. We have a lot of women on our staff—I think we might have more women than men—which is important to me as well. For me, it was important to have a really mixed group of people because a lot of stories aren't just about being told from a black point of view; they're about the perception about how black things in life sort of resonate with everyone. At the same time, I also want to know how things that we sort of feel are unique to one culture really aren't—we're just people, and we all sort of share.
Do you ever believe that ABC has stepped in and encroached on your vision?
ABC as a network? Almost never. The thing that I did not know, however, is that S&P [Standards and Practices] is a totally different company than the actual [television network] company—it's almost like a third party. They run their shop in a way that they don't answer to anyone. That's the battle, S&P.
We're doing an episode right now about what it's like the first time that you have to sit and talk to your kids about civil unrest. The kids are sitting at home, they see a crowd of people, and they're waiting for the verdict of an indictment—and Jack turns around and says, "Why are all these people so mad?" Then you have to sort of decide because the house gets divided. Does Bo let Dre and Pops's sort of ideology about who the cops are—what they were used to growing up—affect how she's going to explain to her children about what's going on? It's a very heavy episode. Of course we try to use a lot of comedy, but it's a hard topic.
Is it difficult to balance that humor with reality—particularly since the show is so indebted to race-based politics?
Yeah, it's the hardest part of the show. I'm a huge fan of Norman Lear's work, and I'll talk to him in a sort of a mentoring kind of way. I still think of this thing that he said: "It's hard enough to do 'my boss is coming over and my wife burnt the pot roast' anyway." That's hard comedy to do in itself. But then when you take out the mundane ideas and put in something like, "Oh yeah, somebody got shot by a cop!" in that mix it starts to become... whew, something else. But I kind of feel that if you start letting things like [a fear of working toward this balance] drive you, you might as well just do a poll of what episodes you air every week.
What does that have to do with the race-ness about it?
Well, we don't get these opportunities a lot. Anyone who has any sort of profile or reaches out to the masses in any kind of significant way, that's his or her responsibility. I hear people say, "I'm not a role model" all the time and it's like, "Well, of course you're not!" It doesn't mean that people aren't going to look at you as one though.
Honestly, that's why it hurt me so much to hear all of the stuff about The Cosby Show. Because, you know, that show had such an effect on me. It's hard when I hear people who want to take away the impact of that show because of the man. You know, my wife and I have arguments and go through hard times just like everyone else. But [by that same logic], if we're not together, does my show not matter anymore? If I get divorced, does my show not count?
Do you feel like that has happened to you—now that you're kind of a "name" because of the show?
Like, I'm going to a luncheon right now, and dude, I want to wear some fucking jeans and a T-shirt! Because honestly, I'm like, I don't give a fuck about what these white people think about the way I dress. But then again, I do. I think Du Bois said it best: We do live a duality. As I'm talking to you right now, I've gone from a Tom Ford suit to leather jeans. At the end of the day I tend to err on the side of representing the show. But at the same time, I'll go to pitch meetings and I'm always myself. And that's what I would give as a piece of advice. You know, as a creative, you have to be your truest form. You can't worry about fitting into whatever boxes people want to put you in. In this country, we've let perception become our reality. But it's not.
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