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Interview: ‘Black-Ish’ Creator Kenya Barris Talks Blackness in the Age of Obama and in the Shadow of Cosby (Premieres Tonight)

Interview: 'Black-Ish' Creator Kenya Barris Talks Blackness in the Age of Obama and in the Shadow of Cosby (Premieres Tonight)

Premiering tonight on ABC, “Black-ish” follows Andre
Johnson, a successful advertising executive, husband, and father trying to
establish a sense of cultural identity for his family in the age of Obama and
post-racial dogma.

The series is loosely based on the life of show
creator Kenya Barris, who leads a team of black executive producers including
Larry Wilmore, Brian Dobbins, and Helen Sugland, as well as Anthony Anderson
and Laurence Fishburne, who also star.

Leading up to the series premiere, Barris made time to talk with
Shadow And Act about the show and what he hopes to achieve with it.

About the series title, “Black-ish”:

I looked at my kids and realized that they’re
growing up in a much different way than I did. I’m from Inglewood; my kids are
not. And my understanding of what it was to be black growing up is not the
world that they’re living in. They have a filtered version of that; it’s a little
black-ish. They’ve taken a lot of
different things from what Americana has become.

And at the same time I looked around at everyone
else who was in an additive way a little black-ish.
I say it in the pilot – Kim Kardashian, Justin Timberlake, everyone else who – it
used to be called “co-opting,” but now it’s “an homage.”
And it’s people sort of finally giving us credit for our contribution to the
Zeitgeist of the world today. So I felt
like the younger generation is living in this homogenized world that we’ve
never really seen before, which is capped off by our President who is black and
mixed race. I could have called it “The Johnsons,” or “Keeping it
Real” or “The Burbs,” but I felt like I wanted to say something
about this world.

On comparisons
to “The Cosby Show”:

KB: Cosby is one of my mentors and that show
changed my life. It was groundbreaking, but it was about a family that happened
to be black. I wanted to do a show about a family that is absolutely black.
Because as Du Bois has shown, we do have to live a double consciousness every
day in the world. We have to walk our path and walk the mainstream path, and
there’s never really been a show that’s talked about what that’s like.

To me [“Cosby”] is one of the
greatest shows ever created. Monetarily, it’s proven to be one of the greatest
shows ever created. I set out to tell my story, which is based on my family.
Dr. Cosby told his story in “The Cosby Show.” The comparisons stop
there in terms of my creation of the show. We just both happen to have black
fathers at the center of it.

Reflecting culture in the series:

Our main character is a little flawed, and I
think that works to the nature of single camera comedies. He understands his
misgivings eventually, that’s his journey each week, and we’re going on it with
him. From my perspective, I went through African rites of passage ceremonies, I
did Jack and Jill, I did Links and so many things that were part of what the
black experience was growing up. And I saw some of the hypocrisy of it. I tried
to do Kwanzaa with my family and was like, ‘This sucks. What am I doing this
for?’

For me, I felt like I was doing it because I
was trying to live up to someone else’s idea of what black was. At the same
time, my aunt does it and loves it and has a huge amount of passion for it. But
the great thing about culture on our show is that we don’t have to have one
point of view. They are not the spokesmen for Black America. They are one black
family, and hopefully people laugh and like them, and hopefully they shed some
light and start some conversations.

On Tracee Ellis Ross’ character, Rainbow:

She’s a little more liberal. She’s mixed race
and comes from a different socioeconomic and cultural background. She’s
figuring it out too, as she goes. This is very much a couple who are figuring
themselves out, and figuring out parenting, and we’re on that ride with them in
a much broader sense than I think we saw on “The Cosby Show.”

Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable were as close to
perfection as we could see, and I feel like was something that we really needed
at the time. This family is going to make a few more mistakes. But these
characters have learned from watching “The Cosby Show.” Their lives are
influenced by the same things that my life was influenced by, so they’re aware
that they have a very Cosby-esque life and they want to live up to that, and
they feel disappointed when they can’t.

On casting
Ross:

We always knew we wanted Tracee, but the
network had to go through its process. But the moment she walked in, there was
no competition. We had worked together before on “Girlfriends” and we’ve
been friends for over a decade. I think that her talent is boundless. The best
part of the show, to me, is the cast. They gelled from day one and you see that
on the screen. It feels like a real family and that’s usually hard to build.
I’m so happy that it came together, and hopefully people like it.


Bringing the show to ABC:  

We were really lucky. We showed it to ABC
because of [ABC Entertainment Group President] Paul Lee. They were the place
that we thought would really get behind us and at the same time, let us do an
honest version of what we thought the show should be. Honestly it’s been a
dream scenario.

.

On the pressures of representation:

We want a show that we feel is true to our
experiences. I think sometimes there’s an unfair bias, especially amongst our
people, that one thing has to be this pandemic cure-all for everything. And to
me that’s not fair.

This isn’t a political show. It may express the
political viewpoints of the characters, which are funneled through myself, my
partners, and the writers. But it doesn’t have pundits on either side. It’s a
reflection of my world, and Anthony’s, and Laurence’s, and Larry’s world. We
wanted to bring an honest reflection of our aggregate experiences, and just
tell an honest story. That’s all that any creative endeavor can hope to do, is
just try and bring an honest version of their experience.

On audience expectations:

I understand the reticence and some of the
reactions to the title. I feel like as a black person in this country we’ve had
the wool pulled over our eyes, we’ve had so much placed upon us, I get it. And
I think that most of the response is out of context because they haven’t
actually seen the show. So I understand, and all I ask is that maybe it draws
people to actually look at it and give it a chance and form their opinion from
there.

If the show isn’t for you, but it has something
that may be for someone else, some support of the show still goes a long way.
Because if it works, there might be three other shows behind it and one of
those might speak to exactly what you’re looking for. I’m not for having to
support everything that’s black, because I definitely don’t. But I do feel like
it is imperative for us to see that we are not a monolithic people. There are a
lot of different things that we will embrace, and a more unilateral approach to
some of those things may help us in the long run.  

** 

Thanks to Kenya Barris for the time.

“Black-ish” premieres at 9:30/8:30c tonight on ABC.


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