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IndieWire Critics Roundtable: ‘#blackAF’ and the Dilemmas of Black Criticism

In the wake of Kenya Barris' controversial "#blackAF" episode and Lena Waithe's commentary on black criticism, IndieWire invited four black critics to share their thoughts on the state of the industry.

#BLACKAF

Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones in “blackAF”

Courtesy of Netflix

Reviews of Kenya Barris’ new Netflix series “#blackAF” have been mixed at best; critical consensus is that it’s uncertain what Barris is trying to say in what is effectively a freewheeling retread of “black-ish” but with an abundance of expletives.

It does appear that Barris wants to chew on what he sees as the dilemma of being a successful black content creator in Hollywood today. That premise is expressed most clearly in Episode 5, during which Barris raises the often touchy subject that is black criticism of black art.

In the episode, Barris revisits Lena Waithe’s contentious 2019 comments about the need for a more robust evaluation of black film and television by black critics, while ruminating on whether black people are free to honestly and publicly critique work produced by black content creators.

“I feel like we don’t have film criticism anymore, in a real way,” Waithe said at the time. “A lot of bad black movies get good reviews because white critics are afraid to pan them. I love what Chris Rock had to say, that black people haven’t overcome until we’re allowed to fail. We still feel this guilt of, ‘Go support this movie because there’s black folks in it’.”

In the star-studded Episode 5, Barris pans a widely-popular unnamed film by a fictional up-and-coming black filmmaker. Having already agreed to participate in a live conversation with the filmmaker, he spends the rest of the episode on a quest to understand the film’s appeal with black audiences, seeking insight from various trusted sources including Tyler Perry, and finally his peers, Tim Story, Issa Rae, Ava Duvernay, Will Packer and Waithe.

Historically, persistent pressure has been placed on black audiences to support and root for the work of black creatives, even when the work is subpar. Likewise, there’s a similar pressure on black critics to avoid publicly critiquing work produced by black creatives, all in the spirit of a kind of racial solidarity.

The reason these discussions about black art are so rife with tension is because of concerns within the black community that public criticism of black art by black people could jeopardize the production of black films and television shows going forward.

But criticism is about situating a work in the world. And black critics who have the cultural proficiency to engage with the work on its own terms must continue to contextualize and debate their impact, especially in the midst of a creative resurgence in TV and film led by creators of color, like Barris and Waithe.

To discuss all the issues “#blackAF” raised, IndieWire rounded up four black critics for a wide-ranging conversation, as we attempted to make sense of them: Soraya Nadia McDonald (The Undefeated); Candice Frederick (Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, Essence);LaToya Ferguson (A.V. Club, Paste, IndieWire); and Robert Daniels (RogerEbert.com).

The conversation, which was conducted in early May, weeks before the murder of George Floyd, was edited for length and clarity:

INDIEWIRE: I read Robert’s review of “#blackAF,” as well as LaToya’s and Soraya’s. And all three of you panned it like I did. Candice, you didn’t write about it, so I don’t know what you think of the series.

CANDICE: I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it, I think I disliked it for different reasons than a lot of other people seem to dislike it. I disliked it because I just thought it was a lot of rehash from “Black-ish.” So I was generally agnostic toward it.

Candice Frederick

Candice Frederick

Candice Frederick

Episode 5 is the one that seems to be getting a lot of attention because of what Kenya Barris seems to be trying to say. So, do you think he is right when he says that white critics are not honest in their reviews of black film and television?

CANDICE: I think that of critics at large across the racial spectrum. But generally speaking, there hasn’t been a collective, honest critique of black content. But I don’t think a whole lot of white critics actually review a lot of black content, and when they do, there’s a sense that outright saying it’s terrible is something they won’t do even if it is. Or what I’ve been seeing a lot more lately is just complete silence. Completely ignoring it. Or it’s interviews that are essentially not really talking about the merit of the piece. And so I do think that there is a difference in the way that black content is approached versus non-black content.

SORAYA: What I noticed in the past is there’s definitely a tendency for a lot of critics to just not want to get flamed on Twitter, and so that affects their decision making in terms of how they write about film and television.

Critics in general, regardless of race and ethnicity, or very specifically white critics?

SORAYA: I think it kind of extends a little bit across racial lines. I think more acutely, when it comes to white critics who are reviewing black work, I think there’s probably some fear there. I think it’s almost like a combination of fear and guilt. And feeling sort of like, hamstrung, about how to be cognizant of the lack of opportunity that black writers and film crews get, and the effect that a negative review could have on future work, while balancing that with honest critique. Particularly when it’s a director that everyone really, universally likes. The other thing I would say about “Black-ish” in particular, is that it just strikes me as strange and maybe even lazy to get an overall deal with a network that is worth $100 million dollars, and the first thing that you come out with is of something you’ve already done? The candy store is open to you! You could do anything. That frustrates me.

ROBERT: I agree with Candice and Soraya about being worried about critiquing filmmakers who tend to be more popular. I also think that there’s a worry that you’re just not getting the work. And this is across racial lines. So, you err on the side of caution, and tell yourself, “Well, maybe I’ll just hedge my bets, and not be as critical as I probably would be if this was something that was more in my wheelhouse.”

I find that in my case, and I don’t think it’s intentional, but if it’s an expensive movie or TV show, I tend to be less forgiving. Especially if I don’t like it. But if it’s a, let’s say, $200,000 feature, I tend to be more forgiving.

LATOYA: I kind of agree on that. But I think that even if you were as objective as humanly possible, there’s still that fear that on social media, that you will get attacked by the filmmaker or the fans, telling you, “You don’t get it,” or “You’re the problem,” because for some reason, people seem to think that a critic’s job is to be publicity for a TV show or a film, even though that’s not the case whatsoever. So, I think especially for writers of color, because a lot of them aren’t staffed, there is the fear that if you get all this hatred mounted against you, it might screw you over for the next job.

Has anyone here faced any backlash because of a review you wrote that maybe wasn’t favorable to a movie with a black cast, or black director or TV show?

CANDICE: Pretty much all the time. But I don’t really feel that pressure, because that’s my job. I’m not here to make friends. So that’s very low on my priority list if it’s there at all.

LaToya Ferguson

LaToya Ferguson

LaToya Ferguson

LATOYA: I reviewed “Black-ish” for three seasons, so I reviewed the infamous Chris Brown episode. So on top of having Chris Brown in the episode, it was also a bad episode. Just a poorly-written episode, and also had a lot of the themes that Kenya Barris talks about a lot, and that we’re talking about here — supporting black artists, and one black artist ruins it for everyone else. And so, there was a week of Chris Brown supporters being very upset with me for not “getting it,” and also “Black-ish” supporters being upset with me for also not “getting it.”

SORAYA: The most intense backlash I’ve ever received online is probably when I’ve dared to say something unflattering about “Joker.” I feel kind of lucky that I haven’t experienced the levels of vitriol that people like Angelica [Jade Bastien of Vulture for her critique of “Queen & Slim”] has. Sometimes I wonder if readers extend a little more leeway to me because I’m writing for a black publication. I would say that I think the thing that irritates me is that I feel like there’s an assumption among publicists that black publications exist to cheerlead black content. So I don’t know if that gives me some level of insulation that Angelica doesn’t have. She’s also writing for a much higher profile publication. But yeah, my first concern is my own credibility. So, I’m not going to write something that I don’t feel is true, just to be nice.

I just say what I have to say, and I think there’s an audience for that. There are black people that want that honesty. 

ROBERT: I definitely don’t feel any guilt. Like Soraya said, it’s down to my credibility. Part of that is telling the truth. But to go back to the subject of backlash, I’ve never really felt much backlash. I’ve been fortunate in that respect. I always feel that sometimes black female critics feel that far more than black male critics, at least from my outsider perspective.

Why do you think that is?

SORAYA: I would say I think a lot of that is from broader expectations of black women to be sort of unwavering in their solidarity. I think it comes from the same place that you see attacks, like on Gayle King for basically doing her job, when she conducted that interview with Lisa Leslie about Kobe Bryant and the amount of hatred that was directed toward her. I think that expectation to express this unwavering loyalty to the race, and not show dirty laundry, is particularly directed at black women.

CANDICE: I think that black female journalists are seen as having less credibility or lack less capability to do their jobs without bias. Like the first thing that people say when they disagree with my review of something is to attack my capability to do my job. Then they’ll go deeper than that, but it’s always the attack on my ability to my the job.

LATOYA: Or sometimes they assume you’re white and so just don’t “get it.”

So in 2020, we, black people, still do feel this need to publicly advocate for black art. It seems like we should be past that at this point. I can understand maybe why we would have done that in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when there was so little in terms of variety in black content. I think film does have some catching up to do, but on TV there’s just so much content that there’s no reason to be concerned or be worried that an unfavorable critique of a TV show will be detrimental to the production of more black TV shows. Which seems to be what I think is fueling this.

CANDICE: I know for a fact that there are people who just don’t say anything at all rather than say anything negative. So it does come across as though there’s just a big chunk of black journalists who are not saying anything because they can’t be negative. It sort of sounds like whenever me, or the two or three other black journalists who actually do say something negative, it’s going to sound like, “Oh, you’re the one person that’s saying that, so there’s something wrong with you.” When in fact, there’s a lot of other people who are just not saying it. But they actually need to or nothing really changes.

SORAYA: I definitely think that’s a real concern. In that regard, I’m not particularly crazy about the latest season of “Insecure.” I think it’s kind of doing a little too much narrative retreading and phonetic retreading. I said that in my review. But I don’t think it should be canceled. But I’m still going to tell the truth, and make a point to include the context for what I find so frustrating. I did that in an essay I wrote it about “Birth of a Nation” and the way it basically got these incredibly fawning reviews from white critics at Sundance. Because this was also pretty much around the same time that the Oscars were getting blasted by April Reign for #OscarsSoWhite.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Soraya Nadia McDonald

Or maybe there are exceptions to the rule. I’m thinking of Tyler Perry. It seems to be okay to criticize Tyler Perry. It doesn’t seem like anyone really gets any real pushback when you do that. But I think in part, it’s because he clearly doesn’t care. He’s made that point several times. But I’m thinking of the scene in “#blackAF” that he appears in — I’m wondering if you think it rang true.

LATOYA: That whole episode, it’s all over the place. Because Tyler Perry is exactly the kind of director that Kenya and his daughter are upset about in the film. Going to him for guidance seems very backwards. I like that Tyler Perry does connect with a lot of black audiences. He gives so many black talents so much work and I do appreciate that. But at the same time — which drives me crazy — is that he is very wealthy, but he’s having these films made in like eight days. Why do we have to accept that the biggest, most well-known black filmmaker is cutting corners and giving us crap and we will eat it up?

ROBERT: I just found the whole Tyler Perry scene corny. He’s just speaking in these broad statements that have been used so many times, they’re just reductive and cliche. It’s surprising that Kenya would go to Tyler Perry for that advice, but it’s not surprising that Tyler Perry would give that advice.

SORAYA: I think the thing that really annoyed me about the exchange and the presentation of that argument was to me it felt like it was built on a strawman where basically, like Kenya and Tyler had teamed up to say, “Well, white critics don’t review our work honestly anyway. So to hell with critics, period.” That was a complete erasure of black critics. That irritated me. And people are uncomfortable to say this out loud, but we’ll have a film that isn’t actually a good film or a TV show that isn’t actually that great. But the studio or the distributors say, “Look here! Diversity.” That has become the de facto strategy to distract people from whether the thing that they’re seeing works as a film or as a TV show.

CANDICE: To hear that from somebody who has gained such a platform, completely disregarding us, it’s going back to this point that white critics are still seen as the gold standard. And so if you’re a black artist, you probably care more about the criticism from a white critic at the New York Times versus a black critic or a black publication. And on a show that is called “#blackAF,” it’s antithetical to every idea it’s trying to promote here.

Do you think there’s something to say about white critics reviewing or critiquing black films and TV shows? This idea that only black people should critique black art because there’s a cultural understanding and a perspective that white critics don’t have. That’s an argument that I’ve heard many times.

LATOYA: I think there’s a point to it, to an extent, where I feel like a white critic reviewing something created by a black creator needs to be cognizant of that fact and acknowledge that they have blind spot and biases. Black critics on the other hand are so incredibly well-versed in white culture, we’re practically experts on it, because that’s what we’ve been fed for years. I don’t really feel like I have, in particular, a lot of blind spots. There are definitely some.

So, general thoughts about how black criticism can improve.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels

CANDICE: I do think that critics of color are the most vulnerable. When we recover from this pandemic, the first people who will get rehired for staff positions will be white. And that is problematic. I will say that I’ve gotten a handful of publicists, who have actually come to me and asked me about putting them on to more critics of color. It’s not my job, but I have helped a couple of times, while urging them to do the homework. Another thing is that black journalists need to start speaking out publicly about being asked only to write about black content. I write about a variety of content that’s not always black specific, but getting access to non-black content as a black critic can be a struggle. The implication there is that we’re not fully equipped to do our jobs. White critics get to write about whatever they want. I’m a journalist. So I think there’s an uphill battle when it comes to the validity and necessity of black journalists.

LATOYA: It’s chaos out there, especially since there are not enough staff jobs, which is a big thing. I live in Los Angeles and I am a full-time freelancer. But it’s not getting easier to be a freelance writer, and it’s not getting easier to be a critic in general. So many outlets are shutting down, and those that still exist, criticism is being considered less important for some of them. It’s not that there aren’t competent writers. It’s just that it’s getting harder for us, unfortunately. And I hope something can turn that around.

ROBERT: I definitely echo Candice quite a lot, especially with freelance black critics being thrown whatever black content is out on that particular day, week or month. So I always feel like the only time I kind of get more than just black content to write about is when I’m usually at a festival like Sundance. But jobs are already scarce and it feels a little weird to complain. But there’s also obviously the worry that maybe, especially with every single production shut down, who knows when content is ever going to be available again? And being seen as a “black writer,” may come back to bite me some day.

Why do you think that?

ROBERT: It’s just the idea that I might not get an opportunity that I really, really want because my coverage is limited to mostly black content.

SORAYA: I would say that criticism overall is really facing a crisis. There are just way fewer of us, particularly full-time on staff. You go to TCA and you’re in a large hall with a ton of critics just to cover TV. And within that room, you can count the black people on one hand. Not every critic can attend the TCA Press Tour. But if you’re using that as a gauge and you’re looking out into that room, and thinking that it is representative of TV criticism as a whole, it looks pretty bleak. And I think that comes down to networks and studios and publicists, having to be more resourceful. I think you try to attribute that to some laziness on their part when it comes to being cognizant of their climate and journalism as a whole and how that is affecting, who writes about what.

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