Kenya Barris’ #blackAF Is Art Imitating Art Imitating Life

TV Reviews BlackAF
Kenya Barris’ #blackAF Is Art Imitating Art Imitating Life

If you’re at all familiar with ABC’s black-ish, then watching Netflix’s #blackAF might feel like a surreal experience to you. Not just because it’s created by and starring Kenya Barris, creator and former showrunner of ABC’s black-ish, but because it’s pretty apparent throughout the eight-episode first season that this new series is essentially Barris’ undistilled, unapologetic, unperturbed by network television notes and interference version of black-ish. In fact, it’s hard not to think that this is the show Barris wanted to make all along but couldn’t under the umbrella of his Disney overlords.

Netflix describes the series as “a total reboot of the family sitcom that just so happens to be based on [Barris’] real life approach to parenting.” That’s exactly what black-ish was supposed to be, but this synopsis also comes across like a pointed reboot of that reboot of the family sitcom… which was also inspired by Barris’ real-life approach to parenting. (Tracee Ellis Ross’ character Rainbow was even based on Barris’ then-wife—name, profession, everything.) Only, in #blackAF, instead of Anthony Anderson’s Dre Johnson, it’s Kenya Barris’ Kenya Barris. This is Barris’ first acting gig—it shows, despite him being serviceable as himself—a choice admittedly inspired by Larry David’s work on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Rashida Jones—who appeared on black-ish as Rainbow’s Real Housewives sister, Santamonica—stars as Joya, Barris’ “lawyer” (she’s on an extended break) wife and mother of his six children, who is either a “boss bitch” or an aspiring Real Housewives cast member, depending on the scene. (Jones, easily the onscreen MVP of #blackAF, also executive produces and directs on the series.)

But Barris doesn’t just star as a very meta version of himself in #blackAF: He works predominantly on a set that’s been described as a “nearly exact replica” of his own real-life family home in Encino, CA. And if you’ve ever seen a black-ish scene with Dre at his place of employment, Stevens & Lido, then you’ll get a very distinct sense of deja vu once #blackAF gets to its writers’ room scenes with Barris. Both shows even share actor Nelson Franklin as part of these office debate scenes. Only, instead of Deon Cole in the office as wildcard Charlie, it has Bumper Robinson in the office as wildcard Broadway, with Angela Kinsey filling the role as the one white woman on the team, which Catherine Reitman (who guest stars in an episode of #blackAF) fills on black-ish. #blackAF also has producer/writer Jonathan Groff step out from behind the scenes, as former black-ish showrunner and Barris’ real-life collaborator, to in front of the camera as a writer character on in-show Barris’ staff.

Where #blackAF somewhat diverts from Barris’ original reboot of the family sitcom is its framing device. #blackAF is presented in documentary format, as part of the NYU film school application from Drea (Iman Benson), the second oldest of the Barris’ six children. (Rounding out the rest of the cast of Barris children, from oldest to youngest, are: Genneya Walton as Chloe, Scarlet Spencer as Izzy, Justin Claiborne as Pops, Ravi Cabot-Conyers as Cam, and Richard Gardenhire Jr. as toddler Brooklyn.) Unlike in black-ish, this allows for an in-story explanation for all the voiceover and black history lessons present.

In the pilot (“because of slavery,” which is the jumping off point for every episode title), Drea explains how her dad hired a full documentary film crew to work for her, claimed she would’ve been fine just filming on her cellphone—because, in her words, she’s “not an asshole.” The rest of the episode and season, however, suggest that she is an asshole, though. Because while Drea is introduced as the level-headed, morally-superior member of the Harris clan—supposedly too good for her family’s shenanigans and shallowness—she comes across as the biggest hypocrite, openly benefiting greatly from the privilege afforded to her by her parents (with the entire series’ premise), while complaining the entire time. The series makes the character intentionally smug, and the confessional moments when her parents verbally take her down a peg or two for that are great to see, but Drea is still the narrator of and gateway into the series. Yet, her relatability is pretty much shattered immediately because of the aforementioned hypocrisy. Which is, unfortunately, a disservice to Benson, who is good in the role and provides plenty of Jim Halpert-approved reaction shots.

Originally titled Black Excellence, #blackAF even manages to follow black-ish’s lead in terms of censoring titles that aren’t exactly good either way. (Neither show has a good title—and in the case of #blackAF, neither its current nor original title capture the spirit of what the show is—but sometimes you do want to go ahead and call them “black shit” and “black AS FUCK.”) As a show ultimately about a super-wealthy black family flaunting that wealth, now is an especially strange time to watch #blackAF, when people are struggling even more to make ends meet. And it’s not just because of the characters’ expenses when it comes to cars, meals, clothes (so many designer labels in the wardrobe), childcare—the Barris “real-life approach to parenting” apparently relies a lot on “the help” doing the parenting—but because the series looks and clearly is just as obscenely expensive as everything these characters pay for on it. The look of #blackAF is sleek, with director Ken Kwapis providing a very music video, Hype Williams’-esque style for the series, on top of the whole mockumentary thing. Take into account all the very specific needle drops for songs, clips from classic movies peppered in, and even a side-by-side, shot-for-shot remake of a scene from a Hughes brothers film in one episode, and it all reminds you just how wealthy Netflix is and how much wealthier the Netflix deal made Barris.

(Barris’ Netflix deal was for $100 million, so on the one hand, with that kind of money, it’s hard to criticize him for simply doing whatever he wanted to do with such riches and the creative freedom that Netflix allows. That’s technically all on Netflix and its model.)

Other than black-ish on a content level, the best modern comparison for #blackAF would have to come from the 2002-2003 one-season FOX series, Fastlane. Fastlane gained notoriety in its short time on TV for its obviously expensive budget and co-creator McG’s hyper-stylization. That’s truly the case for #blackAF as well, and while the series begins with a lot of discussion about black expectations and perceptions when it comes to wealth and the flaunting or presentation of that wealth, the distractingly expensive look and feel of #blackAF kind of undercuts Barris and the series’ actual message (that is, of course, all tied back to slavery, Barris’ self-proclaimed “North Star” in the series). For example, there’s definitely a message in the #blackAF episode that plays both Kanye West’s “Runaway” and “Blood on the Leaves”… but it’s hard to think about that or anything else that happened when you remember that there’s an episode that plays both Kanye West’s “Runaway” and “Blood on the Leaves.” There’s certainly style that comes with the series, but the substance is all muddled by the fact that Barris already got to many of the topics presented in these eight episodes on black-ish—only without the ability to curse freely.

It’s surprising that Barris has attempted to create another heartfelt family sitcom with black history lessons, not only because black-ish is still on the air and available to stream, but because it does so with the consistent throughline that Barris and Joya are terrible parents. Not even just in the case of pawning off the kids to maids and nannies, but in not remembering kids’ birthdays or failing to discipline their kids at all. (By a certain point while viewing the series, my mother, a Nigerian immigrant who has been in this country for 35 years, genuinely asked me if the talking back and lack of disciplining of any kind—not even something as harsh as spanking, just a grounding or even a vague acknowledgment punishment—was a “rich black people thing.” I, naturally, would not know. But it would really seem like it.) It’s similar to The Detour, which also grappled with its main characters being bad parents; only The Detour fully acknowledged that they were bad parents, while #blackAF won’t fully commit to that. Instead, #blackAF wants to pretend that emotional end of episode wrap-ups mean they’re not really bad parents or that they’re just like any other family. But they are and they’re not.

Despite all of her flaws, the series also depicts Joya as a far better parent than Barris, practically a single mom to their six kids in a lot of ways—which would probably also make for a better show. While this eventually leads to a discussion of black dads vs. black moms in one episode, Barris being a bad dad is consistent throughout all eight episodes. Despite this fundamental component of the series and these particular characters, #blackAF wants to have its cake and it eat it too, having Barris and Joya being bad parents while also being “black family goals.” While there is probably a better show where the series is just unrepentant in how unlikeable and privileged and detached from the real world its characters are—that’s when the show’s at its best, despite itself—that’s not what #blackAF is. Because it just has to have its black history lessons to bring forth a commonality between the audience and these characters, where there is rarely any commonality otherwise.

That’s honestly more disingenuous in a way than a more sanitized, network-friendly version of this show.

The biggest issue with #blackAF—besides the uncanny valley space that it takes up, the money and privilege stuff, and a much longer discussion about the accusations of colorism in Barris’ work—is the series’ pacing. For reasons that are never quite understandable, episodes of #blackAF range from 32 minutes to a whopping 48 minutes, as opposed to a network sitcom, which would be about 20-22 minutes without commercials. Netflix’s approach to creative freedom and a tendency not to rein in said freedom—for better or worse—is also another long discussion, but the most obvious example of that is the episode length. For as enjoyable as #blackAF can be, every episode feels too long, reaching their natural ending place five to 10 minutes before actually ending.

#blackAF isn’t a bad watch. While the episodes are too long, they’re mostly funny and enjoyable, albeit unsettlingly familiar for obvious reasons. Plus, Rashida Jones is the MVP and true highlight of the series, which is reason enough to tune in. Considering Jones’ career consisting of plenty of people projecting a sense of her not being “black enough,” it’s always great to see her get to play a character where her race is actually acknowledged and valued. And in what is a strange thing to even type, Kenya Barris is no Anthony Anderson… but he manages to work in this context as a leading man, without distracting too much from the rest of the professional actors on the show. His and Jones’ chemistry, especially when Barris and Joya are at their peak petty powers, does a lot of the heavy lifting outside of Jones’ work herself. The young cast is also good, though they’re not immune to the comparisons between them and the young cast of black-ish.

That’s the biggest takeaway still: Kenya Barris did no one any favors by simply going for a black-ish do-over with #blackAF, even with the solid performances and higher budget (which, to be fair, does make the show visually striking). Plenty of creators steal from themselves, but it’s never been quite this blatant, and it usually doesn’t come across as a response to a contentious “break-up” between said creator and the network where they previously had a deal.

#blackAF premieres Friday, April 17th on Netflix.

Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs;.

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