(This is the latest entry to our “Long Reads” series – previous essays can be accessed here.)
BlackAF debuted on Netflix last Friday. There was already controversy surrounding the show before its release. Created, written, and starring Kenya Barris, this is his first acting project after producing an incredibly stacked resumé of work behind the camera for decades. Kenya created the Black-ish franchise, wrote Girls Trip, did writing and directing work on Girlfriends and The Game, and was a co-creator of America’s Next Top Model.and more. He has created some of my favourite shows and movies ever.
The notorious origin story behind BlackAF goes like this: When ABC pulled a Kaepernick/Trump themed Black-ish episode, it didn’t take long for Kenya to leave ABC and sign a three year, $100 million Netflix deal. A flex. BlackAF (formerly called Black Excellence) has Kenya playing himself, Curb Your Enthusiasm style. I’m not totally sure what he’s like in real life, but he plays himself as a dick in the show. A giant dick, whose enormous ego tap dances with his beleaguered self-worth, amidst a backdrop that is supposed to be perfect: lots of money, beautiful things and a beautiful family, a facsimile of his real life. Speaking of his real family, this autobiographical formula is routine for Kenya: the fictionalized Black-ish family models his own too and his ex-wife, a doctor, is nicknamed Rainbow too. In BlackAF, actors play Kenya’s real family, with Rashida Jones (who also executive produces the show) leading the pack as his wife, Joya.
The premise of the show is Kenya’s second oldest daughter, Drea (played by Iman Benson), making a documentary about her family as part of her application to NYU’s film school. It’s a great way to set up the mockumentary vibe of the show. Right out of the gate, they tell us that the BlackAF is going to be about Black wealth and it’s gonna be obnoxious. Drea introduces her family while they brunch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and her voiceover reflects she is an ungrateful brat who thinks she’s the opposite: mocking the money Kenya spent on her camera crew and sounding like more of a fan of the Four Seasons than a regular patron. Of course, Drea doesn’t see herself as an asshole, and this is just the beginning of the deep delusion of the personalities on this show. Somehow, she ends up being the character who is the least asshole-ish of her family, but that is a function of her family’s terrible qualities, not her own good ones. I think this is the point: Kenya absolutely shatters the possibility of these Black people being likeable. Coupled with his already tenuous relationship with Black viewers and critics, I find it totally refreshing.
Black critique of Kenya’s work is always going to be important. I say Black earnestly – for me, it doesn’t matter what white people think of his work because it is presumably for Black people. The thing is, white people like it and he’s done really well, which isn’t an easy place to be. White mainstream success continues to serve as the yardstick of success in Hollywood, with varying opinions on how much of a sellout a Black artist has to be for white people to like, or understand (or the cardinal sin, relate) to their work. The politic of creating art as a Black person for Black people is important, and always political. When a Black artist is commercially successful like Kenya, the delicate dance of making a living telling Black stories is complicated by default. Add some valid critique he’s gotten around the constant casting of light-skinned and biracial Black people in this projects (most notably the -ish franchise and BlackAF) and a constant re-telling of the narrative of wealthy Black people in a white world, what Kenya represents is complex and even unpacking it is complex, so I appreciate the fact that he doesn’t tie anything up neatly with a bow because people are messy.
“I’m…not gonna make up a fake family that genetically makes no sense just for the sake of trying to fill quotas. I LOVE MY PEOPLE,” he wrote. “[And] everything I does [sic] reflects that love. But to cast people like some kinda skin color Allstar game would actually do more harm than good.”
These kids look like my kids. My very Black REAL kids & they face discrimination every day from others outside our culture and I don’t want them to also see it from US.”
This doesn’t make sense to me. When people talk about representation of darker skinned actors, it’s not out of nowhere. Colorism is a painful part of Black life globally, and trickles into everything, including what kinds of Black people represent beauty, talent, intelligence, desirability, and economic status. As a student and teacher of Black culture and entertainment, Kenya has to know this. Having to mirror his family exactly down to the Fenty foundation colour is his choice but that does not make it a good one. I have no idea why he thinks it would be harmful to cast a myriad of Black aesthetics as his family. Black families can often look different from one another due to genetics and I wish that he would admit that something important to him can hurt us and be done with it. But we never really get that kind of fulsome discussion about colorism because we may not be ready to admit their shortcomings, biases, and internal contradictions. With all that said, I do think he loves Black people. It just doesn’t always look like what we have convinced ourselves what Black love looks like.
Reputable Black critics have brought some great arguments about why BlackAF is not good: Kenya is egotistical, he doesn’t represent Blackness accurately, he is out of touch about what Black people care about, and more. I personally love the show and I don’t understand why different things cannot be true at the same time. Judging from Twitter, people who like the show are embracing Kenya’s blind spots and people who hate it are the wokest motherf-ckers on earth. It’s really not that simple. Black people are layered, we are not a monolith, and it’s never good to reduce us to stereotypes? We are not all alike, especially about the things that BlackAF portrays. The show explores personalities in a non-linear way, and that’s a good thing.
Some of the more uncomfortable moments of the show are when it trades ironically critiquing Black wealth to worshipping material objects in a way that feels disgusting and reductive. Painful moments include a barbeque where Kenya and his family hide their expensive possessions from his parents and extended family – because they’re from Inglewood. It’s cartoonish and unrealistic and plays on hurtful and easy stereotypes about Black people who aren’t moneyed. To imply that means they steal from their own family isn’t funny to me. Kenya having to mention what brands he is wearing when I can clearly see him routinely dipped in Versace and Gucci is extra, but I’m more inclined to forgive it.
Rashida Jones performing Joya’s speech about having to prove her Blackness as biracial with a list of things that do not prove anyone’s Blackness is hard to watch. It’s clear this narrative is meaningful to Barris, and the fact of the matter is, past whatever happened in high school, biracial people are generally embraced by Black people and often take over Black narratives, they are hardly obscured by Blackness. I’m so tired of that whole thing. It’s white supremacy that dictates who gets locked out of whiteness, not Black people. If whiteness was like Blackness, biracial people would have an easier time with that acceptance piece. So I’m always confused when Blackness is labelled as the more difficult identity to grapple with, when whiteness comes with the real barriers.
With that said, for me, the show had much more good than bad. Some people have said it’s Black-ish with swearing and for me, that’s delightful. I love swearing and as a cable over network TV person, Black-ish is too polished for me. BlackAF is unvarnished and for the most part, unlikable. The characters are deliberately written that way. Kenya repeatedly calls his oldest daughter a thot and his wife a failure and a bad mom, the kids are all spoiled and often as mean as he is (with the exception of Drea sometimes and his sensitive son who is constantly labelled as “soft”), Joya is a neurotic and selfish mother, completely unaware of how bad her behaviour is because she is only in competition with Kenya to be a better parent. This is all happening while their marriage falls apart because he refuses to allow Joya to grow into her identity, and keeps insisting she either go back to being a hardworking lawyer wife or be a stay at home mom who enjoys his wealth. While doing that, the show fits in some pretty comprehensive history lessons about slavery (it’s Kenya’s “thing”- he can trace it back to anything), gentrification, the oversexualizing of Black women, the prison industrial complex, how annoyingly useless white liberals can be, and way more than I have seen a typical Black comedy do in such a direct way. None of it is perfect either, and I think that’s by design.
Kenya plays a hypocrite in many ways, but I know many Black men (without fame and Netflix deals) that are like him. It’s not unusual to hear the things Kenya grapples with in the show - making money and being so cartoonishly egotistical that it comes across as ungrateful, forgetting where you came from, looking down at other Black people. We are just used to people pretending they don’t do it, or ostracizing Black people who do.
On Twitter, we participate in this way of being woke that leaves no room for error, and it’s really hard to live real life like that. Black people are dealing with generational and socio-economic trauma that is well documented - and we are still in it. To act as if the rare Black people who attain wealth somehow are immune to what everyone deals with, and it doesn’t come across as ugly and insensitive, makes no sense. But there is a huge tension around the flaunting of wealth and the ways in which Black people with money negotiate their identity through the gatekeeper of wealth- white people- and it’s gross. BlackAF explores this, and even if it’s not fulsome, it’s unapologetic.
My favourite episode is Episode 5, titled “yo, between you and me...this is because of slavery.” Kenya is absolutely losing it over having to endorse a movie by a Black director that is a bad movie and is enraged after every person he talks to (except Drea) likes the movie. He knows the movie is bad, and gets his white writers who work for him to admit that they have to lie about it because it’s not their place to critique Black art (I agree!).
Kenya finds this unacceptable and wants a way to critique Black art truthfully. Of course the biggest crime here for him is not knowing if his work is actually good, because he’s totally self-serving at the end of the day. Tyler Perry gives him a grandstanding speech about super-serving his audience (and a big f-ck you to people like me and others who think Tyler Perry should make better art) and Lena Waithe ends up selling Kenya out in front of the director in question and a live audience, after she agreed she would side with Kenya and tell the truth about the bad movie. The episode is brilliant and asks us if we should support anything Black. I love themes like this because I think Black people have a right to be anything we want, including mediocre. Why do white people get to make bad art, and we can’t? The standards we set for ourselves are usually about white gaze and acceptance anyway, we may as well try to have some of the freedom they have. I love arguing for Black mediocrity and BlackAF, and I really don’t care what anyone thinks…kind of. I feel like we all care, and that’s OK.