Kenya Barris Defends His Brand of Comedy: ‘Have You Ever Looked at the Mona Lisa?’
Since the premiere of ABC’s hit sitcom black-ish in 2014, Kenya Barris has quickly risen up the ranks of Hollywood stardom. The writer, director and producer has been at the forefront of Black television over the past decade, creating shows that center a particular kind of Black experience for a post-Obama, Black Lives Matter media landscape.
Barris has expanded the family comedy into a series of -ish spinoffs, has a lucrative development deal with Netflix and is now coming to the big screen with his forthcoming remakes of The Wiz, White Men Can’t Jump and the new Netflix comedy You People.
Co-created by and starring Jonah Hill, alongside a star-studded cast that includes Eddie Murphy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nia Long, David Duchovny, and Lauren London, You People puts a comedy spin on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as an interracial couple (London and Hill) contends with the latent bigotry of their families as they navigate being a Black woman and a Jewish man in love.
The film is a culmination of all of Barris’s strengths or faults, depending on who you ask. Interracialism, heavy-handed social commentary, and a brilliant cast that shines despite the material.
Rolling Stone spoke with Barris about the film, criticism he’s received, and his career.
What do you say to people who may be like, “We have Guess Who. Why do we need this now?”
I feel like this is not meant to be a comp or a remake or anything like that. This was literally based around Jonah and I having a great conversation. We’re both from LA and I grew up in a Black neighborhood, he grew up in a white neighborhood, but when you get to high school, a lot of things with LA — the way it’s set up — you end up going to school in a kind of mixed environment and a lot of people bring what they’ve brought from their upbringing to that environment. And it’s interesting the conversations that it causes.
We spoke for hours and at the time we were speaking he was dating someone from another culture. We talked about what that was like and the idea that it wasn’t the two people that have the problems, it was usually the people around them. We felt like this was a time to sort of, in a way that those movies may have not done — I really didn’t watch it or think about it — but the idea of looking at the world that we’re in, people are so worried about being politically correct and how do we sort of flip that on its head and have a conversation. And you know, Blacks and Jews happen to have the Oppression Olympics a lot of times, like, who had it worse? And we laughed about that and we thought about bringing all that together.
The love interests in this film are a Jewish man and a Black woman, which is interesting considering the heightened tensions between the two communities in recent months. What do you hope the two groups glean from this film?
That love is the answer. Thoughtfulness and love. There’s more room for us to come together than being disparate and apart. And I think that sometime in the middle of that, the thing that we have to remember is that we — as many differences as we have — we also share a lot of things together.
How did you get this star-studded cast together with Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and others?
Politicking. I was really lucky that people responded to the script. I had worked with Eddie recently on a movie. I was a huge fan of Julia’s and a huge fan of David [Duchovny.] Lauren is a friend. Nia is a friend. I’ve been doing this a long time and sort of using, you know, some relationships, people responding to the material and really just a lot of luck and blessings and people saying that they liked what was being talked about.
Past projects of yours like black-ish, grown-ish, mixed-ish and #BlackAF have been criticized by audiences for perpetuating colorism, especially as it relates to Black women. This film, for example, has Eddie Murphy and Nia Long as the parents of the main protagonist, played by Lauren London.
I think that people need to have something to say. I think that the bigger thing is: if you look at my body of work, I challenge anybody who’s had a Blacker body of work than me. black-ish, was based on literally my family. My wife is biracial. My kids look like the kids on black-ish. And I was trying to make a story about my family. #BlackAF, again, was based upon my family so what I was doing was based upon the experience that I knew and the things that came along with that. mixed-ish is based upon exactly that biraciality. I think most of the people who’ve studied the American landscape will say that some sort of mixed-race look will be in in the next 30-40 years.
grown-ish was a spinoff of the character that was the daughter on black-ish. So I think that people needed to have something to say. With that being said, I am so happy that I chose to use those characters that I knew really well and to talk about those things, because I felt like the show was far more successful than it wasn’t. And it talked about things that hadn’t necessarily been spoken about before. And I feel like I’ve heard the – some of my favorite jokes, you know: you say biracial in the mirror three times, Kenya Barris appears. Drake’s baby looks like Kenya Barris produced it. Like, I get it. I get the jokes. But I also feel like if you look at my body of work, everything I’ve done has been to try and promote Black culture in every form and to show that we’re not monolithic and there’s so many versions of us.
And so I feel like, you know, the internet and Twitter, in particular, has a very unique way of making a few people seem like a lot. Most of the things that I’ve done have been really commercially viable and I’ve been really blessed to have that. And I think that opens up a lot more doors for us. And you know, the only color in Hollywood that really matters is green. And most of the things I’ve done have been commercially successful in a way that, unfortunately, you know, our projects haven’t been able to be. And I think it’s opened up a lot of doors for a lot of other people to tell their versions of stories.
You’ve touched on colorism in some of the work, including grown-ish and black-ish, but you seem frustrated when it’s pointed back. Is there a reason for that?
I don’t necessarily find it frustrating when it’s directed at me. I find it frustrating when it affects my kids. I think I can understand, everyone has a point of view and this and that. You know, just the fact that you’re saying I’ve touched on it lets you know that I’m aware of it. And I’ve talked about it in a way that I don’t even know it’s ever been spoken about. I try to talk about it from an honest, multi-sided point of view. So, it would be counterintuitive for me to talk about that and then lean in to say, that’s what I am. Those conversations actually have caused me to have more people watch.
One of the best moments of my life was Rashida Jones playing my wife on #BlackAF and someone was like, here it goes again. I’m like, well, first of all, she’s playing my wife. She’s biracial. It was part of the storyline of the thing, but someone said, “Rashida Jones isn’t a real Black woman.” And someone on Twitter then said, “Rashida Jones is exactly like Barack Obama and he’s our king.” And I feel like that was a really interesting thing to look at.
I feel like we pick and choose when to say, this is what it is and this is what’s not. If you look at some of the biggest figures in the Civil Rights Movement they were biracial, and at that moment we weren’t looking at how someone was lighter or this or that. We just needed numbers and we needed us all to come together.
You’re working on a remake of both The Wiz and White Men Can’t Jump. What are you hoping to bring new to these classics?
I wanna make sure everyone in them is biracial [laughs]. White Men Can’t Jump, we’re finished. We’ve been testing. I’m feeling really good about the direction it’s going in. It’s an updated tale. Basketball has changed a lot from when Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes did it. It’s more ubiquitous in our culture. And so, talking about it from the idea of, like, people are looking at it as a lifestyle. It’s more of a dramatic telling of it. The Wiz, I want to take The Wizard of Oz and I want to, you know, tell it from a position of the place that I know and the people that I know. The Wizard of Oz was an allegory about what was going on at the time with the Great Depression and people were trying to find out what they were gonna do and worry about their world. I think there’s never been a better time to take that and turn it on the world we’re in today. And do it with the magic of what the structure of The Wizard of Oz was.
Some people might be surprised to remember that you were one of the producers of America’s Next Top Model —
Creator, yes. It was popular at the time, but it has certainly gained a cult following within the past few years. So tell me a bit about your time doing that and what you think of the legacy.
Well, it was beyond popular when it was going on. The cult following is great, but it was, you know, I was really, really lucky. I’m a Black dude from Inglewood who got to co-create a modeling show that is in 49 countries, and brought light to a talent that I don’t think people really think there’s a lot of talent about. We were part of the wave of reality TV when it was starting and to do that taught me a lot of things. Reality television is reverse-engineering something I hadn’t learned in the scripted world. I got to hang around models, which wasn’t bad. I got to do it with someone I grew up with and Tyra. And it also, in terms of the opportunities, gave me the power of “no.” I got to say no to some things because I didn’t have to do them and I think that was a big part of helping forge my career.
Some have looked at the show in a different light, saying that some of the things the models have had to do were toxic.
I left Top Model after year two. I stayed on as a developer and I feel like most reality shows, like most things in that world, they don’t always go the way that you would want them. I didn’t have as much to say about what was going on because I wasn’t a part of the show, but I do feel like it brought awareness to modeling in a different way than it had ever been brought. And I feel like I’m proud of the things that it did do, and I think the things that it needs to change or things that needed to be changed, they were actively trying to do that. But at that point, it was a little bit out of my lane.
Any last words on You People?
Once again, I feel like I got to take a swing and hopefully people appreciate it. But more than that, hopefully it opens doors for other people. Our comedy is eaten up at a voracious level in terms of stand-up and things like that, but we don’t often get to tell our stories. And so I think that this is an opportunity to do that with, you know, a budget and a cast that makes it mainstream.
I often feel that we are our own worst enemies. We are, in terms of Black culture, are our alpha predators. You know what I’m saying? We will come at each other. You know, when I did Top Model, when I announced The Wizard of Oz, they were like, why do you wanna put a LGBTQ character in there? Why are we redoing it? It’s already been done. Wizard of Oz is probably one of the gayest movies ever made, you know what I’m saying? Just as a movie. So why would I not when one of my daughters is gay? You know what I’m saying? And my other daughter is fluid and I feel like, you know, why would I not want to present people who are part of the world to let them see themselves?
I think Twitter has given people a lot of anonymous courage. I think that some of this stuff, when you have to actually put your face to it and ask these questions, the questions may change. You have to act and make and create from a really fearless standpoint. And a lot of times, I think the idea and the notion of people who write and who criticize in 140 characters and things like that, it’s really easy to do when you’re not the person having to spend months or years or decades sometimes to get your work done. The thing for us, honestly, is that we’re at the place right now where we need to really stand in our voices. Be critical of one another, because that’s how art grows, and be willing to take that criticism, but at the same time, realize that words are really powerful. And when you’re looking at things, don’t look at ‘em from a necessarily personal point. Look at ‘em from the art. Have you ever looked at the Mona Lisa? It’s a really quick painting and you look at it and you’re like, this isn’t shit. And the more you stare at it, the more beautiful it becomes, and I feel like that is sometimes what I’m trying to do. There are deeper things behind them.