Kenya Barris admits he’s “very nervous.”
The creator of ABC’s hit sitcom “Black-ish” has taken creative risks before with the show, tackling thorny issues like police brutality, the N-word, and the election.
But the fourth season premiere has him on edge, worried about how people are going to react. “They’re either going to love it or hate it,” he says. But for him, “It’s one of my most proud moments as a television producer. I’m really happy with how it came out.”
In the episode, which is titled “Juneteenth,” the Johnson family goes to see Jack and Diane’s school play about Columbus Day. But Dre (Anthony Anderson) gets frustrated with its historical inaccuracies, which sparks a conversation both at home and at work about black holidays that don’t get enough attention – like Juneteenth, the day that marks the end of slavery in the United States.
And that conversation gets delivered in song: The episode features several musical numbers, a clear nod to the smash hit “Hamilton.” (Even the show’s logo has been transformed for the episode.) The cast performs several songs “Hamilton”-style, as well as a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style rendition of “I’m Just a Slave” (shades of “I’m Just a Bill”), to explain Juneteenth and deliver a powerful message about slavery and how the country has never formally apologized.
“The irony of it is I’m nervous because the episode is about how talking about something makes certain people uncomfortable,” Barris tells Variety. “It might make people uncomfortable, but I think that’s what the show is about.”
Barris was inspired when his son came home one day and told him, “You know, Dad, Columbus never set foot in North America.” Replied Barris, “I think you’re mistaken, son. That’s ridiculous.” But he did some research, and learned his son was right after all. “It really made me think, why does this guy [Columbus] get a holiday? We all know who he is,” says Barris. “I’m so quick to blow off or laugh off our own things like Juneteenth, but when you really look at it, it is an amazing moment of American history that marked the end of a really dark period. Why should we not talk about it? It’s a part of who we are, good or bad. It’s what America is.”
The writers had already been talking about doing a musical episode, and had even thrown out, but dismissed, Juneteenth as a potential subject. But this time, Barris was ready to tackle it. “In the same way that comedy gives you a dose of sugar to take something down, I thought that what Lin-Manuel did with ‘Hamilton’ was amazing,” he says. “In educating people about this story about America’s early roots, talking about the ugliness of it but doing it in a musical way, allows people to take it in a way more than you normally would have just hearing the story.”
He even approached Miranda to see if he wanted to contribute to the effort, but unfortunately, the composer was on vacation. But Barris, who ended up turning to the Roots for help with the music, wants to make it clear this is an homage to Miranda and his work.
And he did what he calls a tremendous amount of research to make sure he got all of his facts right. “You start off with a hypothesis and you try to prove it,” he says. “There’s so much research and so many things that I found out that I had no idea about.” One thing that surprised him in particular: “I didn’t know that the reason the actual date was June 19th even though the war was over two months earlier was the Texas landowners were unwilling to give up their slaves because they wanted one last harvest,” he says. “Even though the war was over, and slavery was supposed to have ended, they were like, ‘We’ve got to get one last harvest.’ One last piece of f–kery. That made me even more so want to tell the story and talk about what’s going on.”
The biggest thing that made Barris want to talk about this, though, is that there has never been one prosecutable case of slavery “because it wasn’t a prosecutable offense,” he notes. “That leaves a whole slew of people in this country in a place where they don’t know how to feel about something that happened to them.”
Barris says the network was “very supportive” from the beginning, though “as they saw it, it got a little bit scary for them,” he admits. But not talking about issues like this, he says, isn’t a viable solution. “It’s just that attitude that led us to the current political climate we’re in right now,” he says. “I look at the president now waging a war against the NFL while we’re on the verge of having a nuclear war and I’m like, your priorities are f–ked.”
Trump has already commented on the show’s title, Barris points out, so “maybe he’ll have a comment on this,” he says. “I don’t know what he’s going to do. All I can do is say I’m very blessed and unbelievably lucky to have this mouthpiece, and I’m going to try to use it as much as I can to be funny but at the same time talk about things.”
Barris says the premiere sets a tone for the rest of the season — upcoming episodes will delve into post-partum depression, as well as Zoe moving out and the impact on the family. “We’re trying to just have the conversations that they would actually be having as a family grows,” he says.
But he realizes, too, he’s got a tremendous platform to drive national conversation. “It makes me think I’d better do it fast before it goes away,” he says. “They’re going to shut this s–t down.”
The season premiere of “Black-ish” airs Tuesday, October 3 at 9pm.