Have you ever gone out with your friend and their family, and their parents start fighting in front of you? And now you’re trapped in an awkward situation that you can’t escape until you’re dropped off or your parents pick you back up? Yeah. That’s what watching #BlackAF feels like.
#BlackAF is another Netflix original that premiered on April 17th, 2020. It is written by, produced by and stars Kenya Barris (Black-ish, Mixed-ish, Grown-ish) as a fictionalized version of himself. This isn’t the problem, and it’s not the first time that a celebrity has portrayed himself in a satirical comedy about his own life. The problem is that #BlackAF which purports to be about and for Black people, serves more as an introduction to white people of Black culture and Black struggles in a palatable way.
The premise of the show is that Barris’ daughter, Drea (Iman Benson), is creating a documentary about her family (her parents and her five siblings) for her senior project to get into film school. We follow along with the Barris family as they live their lives, but what we see is a comedy of errors in all of the worst ways.
In the first episode, we hear a lot of discussion about “the white gaze”, described in the show as “the fucked up way White people look at everything we do,” as if the entire premise of this show isn’t built for the white gaze. In fact, the foundation of the show is that the white gaze has made Barris feel as if his lifestyle (his desire for nice cars, large homes, designer clothing) has made him into a performative peacock and how he is consciously attempting to rebel against it. ￼
While yes, there is some truth in how Black people have, historically, had to equate appearance to acceptance, it seems GLARINGLY false when we compare it to the work that Kenya has put into the world. The fact is, much of his body of work directly appeals to the White idea of what Black people and families are like. In #BlackAF, Kenya’s character is unable to part with his beloved gold chain, his extended family (the ones Rainbow-oh wait sorry I mean Joya-calls over when she realizes her children don’t have rhythm) are a masterclass in “ghetto”. We also see Kenya and his family spend money on items that give the appearance of wealth.
Almost every episode of #BlackAF stops at some point to give us black and white pictures over expository dialogue about how hard it is to be Black because we live in a historically and systematically racist society. Again, I have to ask, if this show is supposed to be for Black people, why is it that Black people need an education on things like adultification, Juneteenth, statistics on Black fatherhood and more? If we’re being honest, it doesn’t truly serve as an education, more so as surface-level facts that we’ve all seen being thrown around Twitter by helpful allies three times a week.
Every episode has a title that is some riff of “because of slavery” in it, which can only go so far in helping me understand the tedious pacing of this oftentimes not funny show. Although it’s meant to be a show centred on family, almost all of the focus is pulled by Kenya’s basic inability to act. The show does have a reality show-esque vibe, which helps soothe away some of the rough spots of Kenya’s always exasperated, deadpan delivery of every line and yet the fact that Kenya portrays himself only makes it even more confusing to me that every other character is portrayed by an actor.
Again, the titles don’t really seem to jibe with the overall truth of the show. I don’t believe that being #BlackAF equates to being rich, going to exclusive islands, being wealthy and, in general, supremely irritated and unhappy with one’s living situation. It’s even harder to believe it when there are no moments in the entire show that actually help to bridge the divide between being wealthy Black families and Black families on the opposite side of the wealth spectrum.
Especially when in one particularly memorable episode, we watch Kenya direct his children and assistant to hide the valuables from his family. The same family who somehow manage to hit the nail on the head of every possible Black stereotype, from an ex-con trying to do better (but who is clearly still a con), a grandfather with a too-young girlfriend, an overly aggressive cousin and an uncle who is astonished by the ability of a family to have one (plastic) water bottle for each person in the house.
Furthermore, I can’t help but wonder what part of Black America is represented by a family that is made up of people who all pass the paper bag test, have 3C (or looser) hair and are all traditionally attractive. This is made even more egregious when one considers that Rashida Jones (daughter of musical legend Quincy Jones) has made a living portraying white-passing characters. While it is fair to note that this is meant to be a portrayal of Barris’ own family and therefore the casting is appropriate in that aspect, we must also question how many different iterations we must see of Barris’ family on our screens.
All three of his “-ish” efforts are “loosely” based on his own life, with Black-ish being the sitcom version of #BlackAF, Grown-ish being the story of his eldest daughter’s foray into college and Mixed-ish being Rainbow’s coming of age story. Kenya has done well getting his story onto primetime on several networks. But at this point, if you’re not going to use your influence as a Black man in Hollywood to create art that is reflective of more than just one small corner of the diaspora, why make new art at all? It’d be cheaper for at least three networks if Kenya would stop using the small screen as a therapy tool.
Also, there are a lot of problematic comments about bisexuality and transgender identity peppered throughout the show, such as the age-old “No woman wants to be with a man who would date or have sex with a man!” conversation. A lot of these comments simply display the stereotypical ideas relating to the LGBTQAI+ community and passing it off as a Black ideology. We are also treated to a great scene of Drea (the middle daughter) essentially being coerced by Chloe to take up with someone who is definitely too old to be interested in a high schooler and a situation that we later see made Drea feel both coerced and unprotected by her older sister, something that is never given an actual resolution.
All in all, I can’t help but wonder if Kenya is actually ready to accept the message that he espoused in episode 5 of #BlackAF: that Black people should be allowed and expected to be critical of the art that is produced by and for Black people. In reality, it seems as if Kenya wrote, produced and starred in this product as a not-so-subtle two-finger salute to everyone who has ever voiced problems with his previous efforts.