Written by: Nieema Williams
Created and executive produced by Kenya Barris, #black AF, an original Netflix Series, amplifies and promotes the Black family image in the most purposefully unorthodox way ever seen on screen.
Debuting on April 17, 2020, this mockumentary overflows with satire, Black colloquialism, cultural appropriation, code-switching, Black elitism, and plenty of genuine Black lessons, and laughs to last throughout quarantine. The new age depiction of a Black family whose main concerns are not the stereotypical Black issues such as poverty, drugs, abuse, or lack of money was refreshing to see.
#black AF is the perfect follow-up to a wholesome Black rags-to-riches story. Barris chooses to forego telling his entire life story and focuses on what is happening in his now. Barris makes his acting debut in this series playing himself because the role was too personal and way too important to miss the mark, and I couldn’t agree more. This project is in a completely different bracket from any other series he is responsible for creating or producing, and Barris has been putting his time and talents into the industry for years. Barris is well known in the industry for creating some of the better Black content available to us that show Black families in a progressive light. Series such as The Game, Black-ish, Mixed-ish, Grown-ish, and even America’s Next Top Model have made him a household name. Barris has also written Girls Trip, Shaft, and co-produced Little, which starred and was produced by Hollywood’s youngest executive producer, Marsai Martin, who began her career as Diane Johnson from his hit series, Black-ish, at just 10 years old.
Based directly on his real life, #black AF is the story of a middle-class Black family learning to adjust to being upper-class Black. In other words, due to Dad’s real-life success, they have more money than they can spend and access to things they never would have imagined. In a recent interview with rapper T.I. on his podcast ExpediTIously, Barris states that the world changed for him and his family once he broke into that level of fame, because then he was subjected to having his success watched by everyone. He just wants to experience it with his audience in real time.
Narrated by Drea Barris, the second oldest daughter who needs this documentary project for acceptance into film school, the opening scene of Episode 1 “Because of Slavery” starts with the familiar tones of Super Rich Kids by Frank Ocean and cuts to the Four Seasons hotel weekly family brunch. For clarity “because of slavery” is the theme the entire series is based on creatively. So please understand that while I agree 100%, this is not my personal soapbox or agenda, I am simply reiterating Barris.
While Dad is eyeing the room and making silent apologies to the fellow brunch-goers, Mom Joya Barris is trying to tame the younger three kids, Pops, Brooklyn, and Kam, who are having a casual food fight. Meanwhile the three older siblings, Izzy, Chloe, and Drea, are absorbed with their own social lives trying to enjoy the good life now. Drea comments that the regular Pop Tart and orange juice would have been fine, but this is the life they have now, so she wants to be a team player.
The episode continues to highlight the issues that Kenya is starting to notice with having this amount of wealth. Brunch is a disaster every week, but they continue to go because he can’t just take his family to the IHOP anymore. Kenya wants to be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor — his cars, house, shoes, designer labels, and his CHAINS — without being subjected to white gaze. That’s when you feel judged by a white person for everything you do, and you guessed it — it’s because of slavery.
Barris explains that after 400 years of slavery when Black people were forced out into society, we either went back to prison or assimilated to social norms the best way we knew how, by looking the part. You’d dust off your Sunday best to appear non-predatory. This trickled down through generations of Black people and became what is known as peacocking. Black Americans created drip, and that’s why we have so many names for it — fresh, fly, hard, fleek, sauce, hot, swaggy, icy, Gucci, flossy, sharp, suited, smooth — the list goes on. Black culture is always in the lead when it comes to fashion and trends because we invented looking good out of fear of looking bad, since it literally would save our lives.
To be completely clear, #black AF is not easy to digest. If you’re a fan of Barris and his ability to lift and inspire the multitudes through the power of our collective Blackness, you may need some help with this one. Also, you may be joining most of Black twitter in calling this series: garbage, unrelatable, negative, and some of his worst work. However, to really grasp the message, you must stop waiting for the happy, positive, Black shoe to drop, because it’s not coming any time soon.
Your expectations of what this show was supposed to be is a conditioned response — because of slavery — to how you expected Barris to represent our culture. Meanwhile he is telling you to stop accepting everything a Black person puts out just because it’s Black. Wake up, have an opinion, love it or hate it but have the critical conversation about it. This brings me to what I enjoyed most about #black AF — the intentional breakdown of the 4th wall. All my creatives may be following, but for those of you who are not, the 4th wall is everything behind the camera. Traditionally in any filmed project, movie, or TV, you never should see what goes on behind the camera because that’s how you control your audience. All the hard work, heavy lifting, and nasty stuff goes on behind the 4th wall, and viewers are expected to pretend that they don’t know about it. That wall helps separate the art from the artist, and Barris’s refusal to keep us in the dark about the creative 4th wall translates into his refusal to leave us in the dark about our conditioned 4th wall. He is literally my hero now!
Our ancestors built the 4th wall that white America continues to ignore. Behind that wall is hard work, ugliness, slavery, Jim Crow, voter suppression, lynching, KKK mobs, institutionalized racism, segregation, marches on Washington, and so much more. However, we know what else is behind that wall. Hidden away for safekeeping — like the extra pan of mac & cheese at Thanksgiving — that’s where all our magic lies. It’s juke joints, church on Sunday, grandma’s house, Afro Sheen, disco, soul food, Al Green, and spending the night with your favorite cousins. It is natural rhythm, melanated skin that glows; it’s the epitome of what makes Black people so great, but you cannot take one without the other. You cannot say all Black stories are important but be triggered by #black AF without going behind Kenya Barris’s 4th wall. This project was an open invite to see the set of his real life, and Black people judged it — because of slavery — and our conformity to stay within the three walls we were told not to stray out of.
I get it. We are used to seeing our stories told in only a few ways. We die in the streets, we win the game, we are slaves or mammies, rags to riches. So how dare a Black man tell a story and it not positively impact the culture like he’s been doing? What happens after the riches are gained?
It wasn’t until modern Black creators like Kenya Barris, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay gained their status that we started to see new ranges and depths of our own stories. Even that small amount of change caused us to negate their views or call their work anti-Black. The level of Black displeasure was equal across the board for the following projects.
- When They See Us. The Central Park 5 happened to us! Why would you reopen that wound, Ava? Now we have the Exonerated 5 and generations who never even heard the real story became educated on a Black American tragedy of the penal system for brown boys.
- Get Out. If he wasn’t dating that white girl, none of this wouldn’t have happened, Jordan! But the reality of interracial relationships was addressed, and, in the background, it shone a light on the fact that white people are okay with Black people only if they can control them.
- Queen & Slim — #SpoilerAlert. Lena girl, why would you let them fall in love on the run for a crime they didn’t commit, almost make it to a new life, just to see them get killed anyway? The reality of our world is that the Black person does indeed die and rarely sees happiness, also that sometimes it’s our own people who will do us the most injustice in the end out of jealousy and self-preservation.
- Lastly, #black AF. Why would Kenya clearly show how rich he is and still make a show complaining about his richness? Wealth isn’t the answer to freedom, and you will still be Black no matter how much money you get.
I think it would be a secure assumption that the Black community was polarized by #black AF because of slavery. The goal of #black AF is not to make us look good at all. This series literally functions to point out flaws in our Blackness by highlighting a specific Black family and showing the bad stuff.
These flaws btw are not our fault, and that’s the point. As a people we have been conditioned to move, think, eat, live, laugh, and love a certain way, and it’s all because of slavery and our journey to real freedom. I know it’s a tired pony to keep dragging out of the stable to prove a point. However, Black culture is a complete derivation of PTSD — post-traumatic slave disorder. 2020 Black culture is loud, proud and magical, but we must acknowledge how long it took us to get here — 400 enslaved plus 155 years oppressed freedom. And we’re not done yet.
This is the entire point of Barris’s show. The skyrocketing of his success has placed him and his family in uncharted territory, much like taking a time machine 500 years into the future. You don’t know what’s acceptable or how to behave in this new place, but you’re here now. As a Black man, husband, and father of six, he is looked to for the answers and to lead the way. However, his own past and life growing up in the hood can’t help him navigate this new life.
Non-black people have had centuries of generational wealth passed onto them, so he is perceived dressed as a clown at his own board meeting, trying to fit in with the suits and ties. The problem is that, it’s his company, he owns it. He made this money, and he should be able to do as he pleases. However, the judgement of white gaze is always seeping through in a Black person’s life no matter the level of success, and that’s because of slavery, too. It is a very vulnerable position to be in and admit to, and Barris does a beautiful job bringing it to the screen.
Barris also states, in his sit-down with T.I., that the choices you make when you’re hungry in the world are different once you’ve been fed. Just like life, perspectives change. Choosing to wear all his chains at once or sell them, to drive his fancy sports car that he loves or getting laughed at for owning it in the first place. Keeping in contact to his family from Inglewood by having a BBQ, but also hiding the valuable things, telling his wife who was the sole breadwinner to stop working and be the stay-at-home parent now, then complaining because she doesn’t do anything useful anymore since his wealth afforded this lifestyle of nannies, maids, and personal assistants.
The dissonance is real. Big point? All this money and wealth, and he’s still just Black. Now he is Black with an irresponsible amount of money that he doesn’t know how to responsibly have, so how can he expect anything else in his personal life to be in order? His children are unruly, he is having marital issues, and also there are issues with his work. His level of success unintentionally made him a gatekeeper of Black media, a role he didn’t ask for either. The only way to make it through these new challenges is to take each day on one at a time and remember to enjoy life with your family however they come.
Being honest about your place in the world and about where you stand in life is the only way to access your 4th wall. For those of you who judged #black AF by the third episode, I strongly suggest a rewatch before Season 2 drops. Understanding Barris’s perspective while adopting your own, accepting his vulnerabilities as a man who is also Black, and choosing to break out of your own conditioning will make you love this series. Our story grows and changes just as we do. If you, a Black person, still cannot not manage this task, get down with the get down, you guessed it — it’s because of slavery!
Nieema Williams is a 2019 graduate of Fayetteville State University, where she received her B.A. in Mass Communication. Her passion is journalism and creative writing. Nieema aspires to be a television screenwriter and change the perspective in which Black stories are told. A proud Black Girl Nerd! Follow her on twitter @nieema_k
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