Kenya Barris is an interesting figure. Though relatively new to the entertainment industry, Barris has certainly left his mark on film and television. He is the creator of the show Black-ish and its various spin-offs, as well as a writer for box office hits like Barbershop: The Next Cut and Girls Trip. In his new series, #blackAF, now streaming on Netflix, Barris becomes his own subject and explores race through the perspective of a fictionalized version of himself.
Before I get too far into this review, I need to reveal something: I have not seen Black-ish. I mention this immediately because I am pretty sure, even without having seen the ABC show, whether or not you’ve watched it will shape how you engage with Barris’s newest sitcom. From my understanding, part of Black-ish’s success is related to how the show deals with issues of race in cautiously critical way that both represents African American experience and maintains cross-over appeal for white audiences. #blackAF, as the title suggests, has no such intentions. Or, at least, it wants you to think it does not.
Every moment of #blackAF explicitly explores what it means to black in America. The series focuses on Kenya Barris (the character), his wife, Joya (Rashida Jones), and their six children, the brainiest of which, Drea, is making a documentary about the family. Each episode finds Kenya in a new identity crisis as he wrestles with being a “new money” black man, husband, writer, and father.
The show’s first season struggles to find the right narrative balance. Drea’s documentary provides a contrived and unnecessary justification for the show’s mockumentary format. Parks & Recreation and Modern Family proved that you don’t need to justify using the technique, but #blackAF is insistent, in every episode, that the documentary provides a satisfying structure. Instead of talking heads, we watch Drea conduct her interviews and explain how she’s making her film. It probably wouldn’t be a distraction if it was not so repetitive. Now, that is not to say there aren’t comedic moments that come out of the interviews. The issue, though, is that the humor comes from Kenya and Joya’s one-liners, which would have been just as effective filmed in another way.
Without a doubt, the best thing about the show is the hilarious dialogue, specifically the lines delivered by Kenya and Joya. Barris (the actor) is no actor. His face has a tendency not to move when he expresses emotion. However, the man can deliver a funny line. Like, really funny. Like, I was full-on doing my gay-Joker-cackle that is usually reserved for extra special rounds of The Voting Game. Rashida Jones absolutely steals the show as Joya. Because of her natural abilities as a charismatic screen presence, she elevates the brilliant lines to join the True Queen™ squad. I am confident that many audience members will not connect with Kenya or Joya. It would be easy to read them as unlikable. Audience members who are parents, in particular, will be polarized by the characters – either you think they are horrible parents or the fact that they don’t care for their kids is hilarious. I am on the side of the latter.
Far more polarizing than the parents, though, is the thematic nature of the show. The essence of the series is rooted in social critique, specifically in tackling what it means to be black in America. Well, rich and black in America. Though the social justice issues addressed each episode are urgent and worthy of exploration, they are all explored through a specific wealth privilege granted to the family by Kenya’s career. For some, specifically those who consider themselves “extra-woke,” this will prove off-putting. However, Kenya does consider this component of his status when exploring his identity, which allows for some sharp critique to shine through.
- Though most of the children prove uninteresting, the sensitive and cautious Pops is a star.
- This is the perfect show for all parents stuck in quarantine who are realizing that their kids are not that great.
- The fictionalized versions of the guest stars are all quite entertaining, especially Issa Rae.
- NIA. LONG.
- I cannot remember the last time I laughed as hard as when Kenya has an epiphany about white people and the sun.
- Drea holding the power of the show’s perspective is certainly alluring but is a bit of rouse. Though Drea gets the opportunity to ridicule her father and his overeager, and sometimes misguided ideas, this is Barris’s show, and Drea’s insights are really Barris’s in a seemingly more innovative package.
The Final Tea
#blackAF will prove a polarizing watch for many audiences, but if you give the show the benefit of the doubt, you will find enough laugh-out-loud humor to make up for the show’s less than effective structure.