It would be irresponsible not to commend Kenya Barris for the work he’s done in the entertainment world. From starting in the industry as a co-executive producer for The Game to creating the critically acclaimed show black-ish and writing summer 2017 blockbuster Girls’ Trip, he has seemingly effortlessly shown Hollywood that Black stories will be what saves Nielsen ratings and the box office alike from an untimely death.
But just because the rise to stardom was well-deserved, doesn’t mean it was easy.
In a tell-all profile with The Hollywood Reporter, the creator did not have any hair on his tongue when discussing everything from the shelved controversial black-ish episode to his swift move to Netflix. He broke down exactly what happened between him and ABC execs that lead to the episode being shelved.
The episode, which was going to show Dre telling a bedtime story to his infant son, Devante, that reflected the events of his first year in the world. This detailed a character based on President Trump (who was referred to as ‘The Shady King’) and events based on the Charlottesville attacks and the NFL kneeling protests.
“When you’re putting a baby to sleep, you’re trying to soothe whatever anxieties they’re having,” said Barris. “So, this was about me trying to pat the butt of the country and soothe people.”
The episode was filmed and ready to go until four to five weeks before the air date, when Barris got into a series of heated back and forths with network executives about the episode’s content. While there was an instance when both sides tried to compromise, Barris said it ended up being best to pull the episode altogether. Soon afterward, it was announced that he would be cutting his four-year contract with ABC short and moving over to Netflix. But Barris was quick to point out that the “Please, Baby, Please” episode was not the only reason he was leaving.
In the THR piece, he mentions several of his pilots he presented to ABC that were turned down, even in light of black-ish‘s success. After careful presentations in his code-switch friendly attire and banter, which he referred to in his interview as his “cloak of white acceptance,” he still was not getting the reception he deserved. In the making of black-ish, he also received constant pushback such as notes asking, “do you have to talk about so much black stuff?” and suggestions to change the show’s name to The Johnsons.
It became apparent for Barris that while he tried his best to break as many barriers down that he could, there would be so many stories he wanted to tell that could never exist within the confines of network television. While ABC was perfectly fine with pandering for “red-state programming” with Roseanne Barr, who Barris refers to as “a f-ckin’ monster,” they ultimately couldn’t see eye-to-eye with Barris creatively.
“‘Diversity’ became this catchphrase for the easing of liberal guilt and I felt like there was starting to be an overcorrection, which often happens, and overcorrections tend to re-correct themselves,” he said. “Plus, I didn’t want to be a part of a moment; I wanted to be a part of a movement.”
So while Barris notes that he’s “f-ckin’ terrified” to be trusted with such an opportunity from Netflix, he’s also up to the challenge and is excited by the artistic freedom that he will have. Of course, Barris is not the only diverse creative jumping towards the now well-respected streaming platform. His former network mate Shonda Rhimes and American Horror Story‘s Ryan Murphy are also now creating shows that will be streamed, allowing for deeper, more complex storytelling.
With football ratings at an all-time low and the overall decline in television viewership, the writing is on the wall: network television needs to realize that the days of getting a check in exchange for playing it safe are over.
The only way to make some noise and climb the charts?
Hand the mic over to the people who truly deserve it — no questions asked.