In Netflix’s “#blackAF,” television writer and producer Kenya Barris plays a television writer and producer named Kenya Barris. This sort of meta-sitcom is nothing new. Performers have been playing fictionalized versions of themselves for decades, but it does serve as a note of concession. The show allows Barris to comment on his life, family and career on his own terms, sending up what he chooses to send up. It feels like a kind of confessional — although it rarely rises above surface-level self-aggrandizing — and it meanders due to the absence of a clearly expressed series arc.
Framed as a documentary about the Barris family — his wife and their six children — directed by daughter Drea (Iman Benson) as required for her film school application, the resulting meta family sitcom suffers from an identity crisis. If its ultimate goal is to make audiences laugh, it doesn’t fully succeed. Except for the occasional one-liner that lands, it’s just not funny, and is often tedious to watch.
While it’s dubbed a family comedy series, and other characters get ample screen time, it’s ultimately Barris’ show. His presence and point of view dominate, which is to the series’ detriment, because he isn’t particularly well served by a script that calls for him to stay in a near-constant state of exasperation, making lengthy observations about race, gender, money, family and other topics, that are likely meant to be clever and funny, but are instead mostly exhausting.
Barris is also clearly not an actor, and while his performance is serviceable for the series’ glossy reality TV show aesthetic, it does become a distraction, especially in scenes that demand more than an impassive line delivery. It’s a mystery why he didn’t cast an actor to play the part, as he did for every other role in the series (not that all the other performances are particularly great, save for Rashida Jones as his wife, Joya). And so it feels very much like a vanity project for him.
The almost constant drumbeat of family bickering and hurling of insults, from parent to parent, parent to kids, and vice-versa, becomes increasingly grating. In its defense, via a voiceover, Drea explains: “Families need to fight. Just like countries fight to build a better world, families fight to better each other. It’s healthy. As dad always says: You only really have to start worrying when the fighting stops.”
It’s not a one-size fits all truth, but if the series does have a driving theme, that’s probably it. There is something to be said about struggle leading to growth. However, within the Barris family, confrontation appears to be habitual, or at least, Barris chose to depict it as habitual, with very few cracks of actual humanity and tenderness to counter an almost ceaseless racket.
Netflix likely gave Barris carte blanche to produce the series exactly as he wanted, and maybe deservedly so, given his resume with creating the “black-ish” franchise. But like with the character’s overindulgent spending, some restraint would’ve relieved the series of some of its superfluousness.
This is a family that lives in excess. Barris is obviously wealthy, thanks to a number of hit TV shows and movies. But the ostentatiousness on display feels tone deaf. Luxury brand names are routinely dropped, as if ads for the brands themselves — Mr Porter, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Valentino, Bergdorf, and others — that each may have as well come with a freeze-framed, overlayed price tag and link to purchase.
The final two episodes are spent with the family on vacation, occupying an entire island in Fiji, rented by Barris. Of course, their trip to the location was on a luxurious private jet.
In a voiceover, daughter Drea attributes her father’s excess to the fact that “he’s miserable and empty on the inside.” It’s not clear whether Barris is indicting himself here, sending up nouveau riche stereotypes, but given that he uses his real name in the series, and the audience doesn’t really have much else to pull from, it’s not an entirely absurd inference.
Each episode title has the word “slavery” in it — “Because of Slavery,” “Hard to Believe, but Still Because of Slavery” — and features a brief history lesson comprised of a photo montage, accompanied by a voiceover, explaining how issues like Juneteenth, the adultification of black girls, and the demonization of black men can be traced back to antebellum America. These digressions are obviously meant to educate, but aren’t seamlessly incorporated. Jammed between the ostentatiousness and squabbling, they ring hollow.
The title itself doesn’t really mean much within the context of the series, unless Barris is suggesting that being “black AF” means being a wealthy, cantankerous peacock. And maybe some will consider that authentic, but it doesn’t exactly make for captivating viewing over eight episodes, given the absence of any real moments of redemption.
Cameos by heavy-hitters like Steve Levitan, Scooter Braun, Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay, Will Packer, Issa Rae, Tim Story, and Lena Waithe abound. Although some feel less like naturally occurring instances in Barris’ exclusive universe — as they are likely meant to appear — and more like a showy parade.
Ultimately, it’s uncertain what audiences are meant to understand about Barris, if anything at all, or the world he’s created within the series. Because even as a source of pure entertainment, it falls flat. In fact, it’s uncertain who Barris envisions as the show’s target audience.
But one sequence that does offer what feels like a genuine moment of self-reflection happens in the fifth episode when Barris revisits Waithe’s contentious 2019 comments about the need for a more robust evaluation of black art, by black critics, ruminating on whether black people are free to honestly critique each other’s work.
Barris, in a behind-the-scenes confessional, wonders if he himself is genuinely talented, or whether he’s just “riding this black wave,” because of what is characterized in the series as a #SupportEverythingBlack moment, regardless of merit.
“It’s one thing for white critics to be scared of me, but it’s another thing for my people to only mess with me because they feel like they have to,” he says. “White people aren’t going to be honest with us, so we have to tell each other the truth. That’s the only way we get better.”
Taking his words at face value, Barris seems to be self-referentially inviting honest criticism of his work from black writers, so he certainly should be open to this one.
“#blackAF” is now streaming on Netflix.