'#blackAF' Creator Kenya Barris Reveals the Hardest Thing He's Ever Had to Do for a Show

Kenya Barris is nervous about the debut of his new Netflix series, #blackAF. He said as much during an afternoon phone call with Newsweek earlier this week.

He's not worried about catching any flak from viewers who are startled by the show's controversial patriarch, who isn't afraid to call his kids "a**holes" when they're behaving like, well, a**holes. And he isn't concerned about trolls on Twitter complaining about how light-skinned the show's cast is, either. Available now on Netflix, #blackAF is a fictionalized glimpse into his own life at home with his six kids, and the cast, which includes Rashida Jones as the leading lady, resembles them.

No, the reason Barris is nervous is because he's the star of the series—a first for him. He's the one playing that controversial patriarch, who's a fictionalized version of Barris himself: a Hollywood writer, producer and creator of celebrated shows like black-ish, grown-ish and mixed-ish.

"Oh my god! It was the hardest thing ever! I had a good time because [the cast] became my family, but it was the hardest thing I've ever done," Barris said of his acting debut.

Barris' character—who's also named Kenya Barris—isn't like the patriarch on black-ish, Anthony Anderson's buttoned-up Dre. Instead, he's prone to cursing and throwing adult temper tantrums, and has an affinity for Moët rosé. He's very much a proud product of Inglewood, even though he hides a bunch of valuables when his relatives come to visit. (In the show's fifth episode, Barris forces his sons to put away their unreleased Oculus Quest, so as not to tempt some of their sticky-fingered family members.)

Odds are, it's a side of Barris that fans of his wholesome and endearing network TV shows probably haven't seen before. But it works on a sitcom that follows a not-so-typical black family as they tackle cultural and racial topics under a more uncongenial lens. That approach is precisely why Barris decided to step in front of the camera this time around.

Kenya Barris Dishes on New Netflix series '#blackAF'
The cast of Netflix's newest series "#blackAF." Kenya Barris (center) talked about the new show in an interview with Newsweek ahead of the show's release on Netflix on April 17, 2020. Gabriel Delerme/Netflix

"Some of the things I wanted to say in the show, I didn't necessarily feel comfortable having an actor say because [what I wanted to say] was a little bit incendiary," he explained.

In a conversation with Newsweek, Barris unpacked the creative thinking behind #blackAF, what it's like to feel the white-gaze and what his real-life family thinks of the new half-hour show. Check out our interview with Barris below.

Meet the Cast of '#blackAF,' Kenya Barris' Edgy and Unfiltered Netflix Show
(L-R) Kenya Barris and Rashida Jones appear on "#blackAF." The new Netflix series releases on April 17, 2020. Gabriel Delerme/Netflix

Was being in front of the camera more difficult than writing and producing?

I feel like it was the scariest thing I have ever done. But every show writer should do it—I swear, even if it's just a small part—because it makes you a better writer. You start understanding that the words you're saying, someone actually has to say that. When you're in the [writers' room] making jokes and things like that, it's all good, but someone actually has to [say] those jokes. You have to realize where the person is in the room, where they have to project to. It was a completely different experience. I feel like it really made me a better writer, but it was terrifying.

I had to go in there and look at myself in editing 12 hours a day, and I was like, "Oh my God! Is that the face that I'm presenting to the world every day?!" You see yourself from every angle, every bad moment. It took me, like, three weeks to get over being depressed every day when I walked out of the editing room, but it gave me a whole lot more respect for what actors do. I already thought they were magical people. Any way that you're feeling, anything that's on your chest, anything that's on your heart, that camera does not play and it will see through you, right into your soul.

How did Rashida Jones get involved in the show?

She was my partner from the start. She was the only person I ever offered the role to, and she was the only actress I wanted to do this with. Her personal experiences gave her an interesting outlook on this world. Additionally, I feel like with this she broadens her scope as an actress. Most people have not seen her like this before. She's catching smoke over this because people are like, "You're not even all black." So with her stepping into this, she was addressing her own fears. That was interesting to watch her do and process. I just cherish her. I really do.

There was a lot of backlash when the first promo photo for #blackAF first came out with people making negative comments about the cast being so light-skinned and of mixed descent, but you picked everyone based on their resemblance to your own children. What's been your response to the people who found the title and the shades of the cast members problematic?

The same s**t black kids catch, [my kids] get. I can remember my daughter being 4 years old and coming home and asking, "What is nappy? Why is my hair nappy?" [My kids] have had those experiences. And I wanted the show to actually reflect what my family looks like. There was an amazing actress who came on, but Rashida and I looked at each other and were like, "We can't make that person." We wanted to make sure that it looked like our family. That was a really important thing for me.

Throughout my career, I've really been a proponent of diversity and representation, and I realize that people's experiences have been really harsh. I really understand that. I'm not going to count the shades of people that I've cast, because that's not something I do. The thing that I was trying to make had a certain kind of tableau that I wanted to be a part of [the show]. So I really understand everyone's experiences, and I know that it's real for them. But this was such a personal story. The biggest thing for me to do is to keep doing work so I can keep showing more versions [of black people] and show how non-monolithic we are—show how many versions of us there are and show all our different lanes.

So much about the show isn't the typical black retrospective we see in sitcoms. Your character isn't the traditional black dad and the couple's parenting style isn't how black families are usually portrayed, either.

That was important to me. One or two of my kids might say a curse word here and there, and sometimes it's kind of funny and sometimes I feel like I'm a bad dad for laughing. But there's a freedom, an entitlement, that I wanted for them. There's a phrase in Marcus Gladwell's book Outliers, and it talks about black kids often not getting the same treatment as their white counterparts when they go to the doctor because they don't feel free to speak. They don't feel free to say, "This is what's bothering me, this is what's hurting me." They kind of just take the treatment that's given to them.

My kids, I wanted them to feel free. I wanted them to be respectful. I wanted them to be kind. But I wanted them to have some of those same freedoms and nuances that white parents have that allowed [their kids] to feel like they could take over the world, be the best that they could be and say the things they need to say. It's a tradeoff constantly, and I'm constantly struggling with it.

Considering the success of kids like black-ish's Yara Shahidi, Marsai Martin and Marcus Scribner, I think it's safe to say you have a knack for casting young actors. Would you agree?

That is my thing. I think I'm a decent writer. I think I'm a good producer. But I love casting. I really do. The [kids on #blackAF] are great. They are so good. Iman Benson, who plays my daughter, she's a f**king superstar. As is Genneya Walton, as is the littlest kid, [Richard Whitney Gardenhire Jr.]. He's a genius. I'm so fortunate with those kids, and my casting directors are amazing. They do nationwide searches. I don't want Disney kids. I want grounded, real kids, who feel like real people.

Meet the Cast of '#blackAF,' Kenya Barris' Edgy and Unfiltered Netflix Show
(L-R) Kenya Barris and Scarlet Spencer appear on "#blackAF." The new Netflix series releases on April 17, 2020. Courtesy of Netflix

Can we talk about the first episode of #blackAF and the white-gaze? Why was that the topic you wanted to harp on right out the gate?

It's interesting because it was a big part of what made me do this show. The first bit of money I made, I bought a Ferrari. Since I was a little kid I wanted one. So I got one, and it had 200 miles on it, and it's just been sitting at the house because I feel stupid driving it. One day I got offered tickets to floor seats at a [basketball] game, and I asked my daughter if she wanted to go. She wanted to take the Ferrari because she had never been in it. So we go to the game. It's a great game, and I looked up and f**king Jeffrey Katzenberg [the film producer] is standing over me.

I'm like, "Hey Jeffery Katzenberg, what's going on?" And he's like, "Hey, I just wanted to let you know I'm a fan of your work," and I'm just waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come down like I'm getting punk'd. He asked if I'd ever want to go to breakfast or brunch, and I'm like, "Of course, Jeffery Katzenberg, sure." We exchange numbers. It's an overtime game. Me and my daughter have a great time. We get home, it's after 11:30. I get in the house and here comes the text from Jeffery Katzenberg, and he asks if I wanted to go to breakfast in the morning, and I'm like, "Yeah, Jeffery Katzenberg, I'll go to breakfast with you."

The next morning I wake up, I'm rushing—I'm always a little bit late. I go outside and I realize where I parked the car blocked-in all the other cars. [The Ferrari] was the only car I could take. I didn't want to take the car but I figured I'd park it somewhere up the street. I'm rushing to get there, I park the car as far away [from the restaurant] as I can, and who's getting out in front of me in a dirty Prius? Jeffery Katzenberg! He turns around and he goes, "Hey, bud. Good for you. Nice car." All I could hear in my head was, "Hey, black guy spending all his money on a Ferrari."

Everything he said to me made me feel smaller and smaller. I wanted to go cry in the car. I was so bothered I couldn't even pay attention while we were having breakfast. I was so in my head. I walked out of there wondering, "Why am I feeling this way?" The car's expensive, but I can afford it. I've worked really hard. I'm not doing doughnuts in it. But that's the duality that we have to live in. I felt like some kind of rat monkey, living in a world where I felt like I was being judged because of how I chose to spend my money. We're always wondering how white people look at us, and we let it affect us. That's the conceit of a lot in the show. It's the George Jefferson-esque satirizing of being in between.

Has your family seen the show?

They have. They like it. It's much more closer to them [than black-ish]. The wife character is not so much based upon my kids' mom other than her being biracial. I really took a different approach with [the wife character] this time—I wanted her to be a little bit more militant and a little more zany. But for the kids, in particular, this is a much closer rendition of them: the ages and their looks, personalities and some of their nicknames. I took a different approach this time and talked to them about the show beforehand. So they weren't so surprised. But they're all really excited. I think they're more excited about this than black-ish.

Are you hoping for a season two?

I want to see how it does. If it does well, it's a blessing. I would be very, very, very happy to try and see if we could figure another season out. It has to be right, though. I have to have an idea and it has to be something that feels provocative and evocative, something that feels like it's not within our own interest to do a show but we have something to say.

Will we be getting more of this kind of raw and unfiltered content from you on Netflix?

Absolutely. We have a show with Vince Staples coming out. We have a show we're doing about this collective called LVRN. The show is called Finesse, and it's kind of like what it's like to be young, black and talented, hustling your way into this business. We're doing a show that's kind of female-centric around social media. We're calling it Followers. But I really want to do things that are very evocative and part of the zeitgeist in a way we haven't seen before. That's what's really important to me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.