At this point in his television career of mining his personal life for family comedies, Kenya Barris tells his kids ahead of time what from their adolescence they should expect to see on-screen.
In fact, for his Netflix comedy “#BlackAF,” in which Barris stars as a version of himself — a Hollywood showrunner with six kids — some of those children saw the material well ahead of time.
“I made sure my oldest daughter read every script; my middle daughter, who’s a super film buff, read every outline before I showed her the script; my youngest daughter came to editing a few times,” Barris says. “So many of their friends watch Netflix, I definitely made sure to give them a heads-up. The biggest boost I needed was that my daughters got behind me.”
“#BlackAF” is hardly the first show for which Barris pulled from his own experiences. His Emmy-nominated ABC sitcom “Black-ish,” for example, is loosely based on his large family already and the end of the fourth season included an arc about marital strain. But “#BlackAF” digs the deepest, not only by casting six young actors to portray each of his real-life kids, but also by leaning further into the at-times harsh realities of a long-term relationship than the traditional broadcast formula allows.
The sixth episode, titled “Hard to Believe, but Still Because of Slavery,” featured what Barris calls “the scariest scene in the show” for him. This is a 4½-minute scene during which Barris and his onscreen wife, Rashida Jones as Joya, hash out what is wrong in their marriage. They don’t raise their voices, but they cover a lot of very serious issues, from competition between spouses to how money has changed their lives and possibly themselves.
Barris, who filed for divorce last year, deliberately wanted to keep that scene “long and uncomfortable” but seen at somewhat of a distance, through middle daughter Drea’s (Iman Benson) camera lens, as she shoots her family for a film-school application documentary.
“I wish my kids could have been blinded to whatever real-life fights me and their mom had, but they absolutely were not, and I think that in some way, this was a cathartic process for all of us,” Barris says of “#BlackAF.”
Part of what was freeing, he notes, was “being able to see the argument from both sides,” and some of it came from the fact that the characters, though inspired by his real family members, were still “hyperbolic” versions. The doc style further aided in a “non-self-serving point of view,” he adds, because it added some distance, even if not a completely objective lens.
“Families are best talked about by how the kids experiencing the situations feel about it,” Barris says. “I’m so constantly worried about what my kids think [but] it helped with some of the stories to forget what I would do. What would a kid in this position do? You weren’t telling it from a personal point of view; you were seeing the main character in a more honest way than he might tell his own story.”
And, Barris says, “because it was really scary” was precisely why he wanted to deliver this kind of storytelling.
“I think that that’s the best form of art, entertainment, expression. If you’re saying things that are safe or not really pushing any boundaries, that’s not fun and that’s also not the thing I think is the purpose of art: The whole purpose of art is to better conversation,” he says.
Kenya Barris’ Inspirations:
Writers’ room style: “I want to be able to pace. I want a window; I’d like the window to be looking at something interesting, even if it’s just a tree, because that becomes what you’re looking at for the next seven, eight months.”
Favorite writers’ room snack: “We’ve become big trail mix people, but I don’t want the peanut version — peanuts are like the pigeons of nuts to me.”
Mood music: “I’ve been writing the last six or seven years to the same album: Chrisette Michele’s first album.”
How he breaks writer’s block: “Patterns.”