[Behind Black Hollywood] ‘Black-ish’ Creator Kenya Barris Talks TV Diversity
Just as it seems like “Black Hollywood” is finally getting its just due with a few notable TV shows about, by and for Black people, here comes a wrecking ball in the form of a study that reinforces something that we’ve pretty much known all along: that even in 2015 “there is still a major disconnect between the percentage of minority writers employed in television and film and the U.S. population.” The 2014 Hollywood Writer’s Report published by the WGA indicates a 7% decline in minority writers employed, down from 15.6% in 2012-’13 season to 13.7% for the 2013-’14 season.
The study’s author—Dr. Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA—is disturbed at how this trend impacts the overall stories we tell and how our voices are reflected in stories where we do have a seat at the proverbial writing table.
“The lack of diversity at the beginning of the hiring process almost assures a lack of diversity at the end of it,” Dr. Hunt told Deadline. He put the onus squarely on insiders to correct this deficit. “Showrunners, networks, studios, production companies all need to do a better part of diversifying their writing staffs [as] the market is not going to fix itself.” But minorities occupy only 5.5% of the TV executive producer (a.k.a. decision-making) population, so even if every minority reached back and did their part, we’d still have a disproportionate gap in representation. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
Kenya Barris is a member of that elite 5.5%. As the creator and executive producer of Black-ish, Barris is doing his part to see that minorities get their shot in the writers’ rooms, just as he got his. Barris climbed through the ranks of television over his 16-year career—graduating from Paramount’s writer’s program, then getting his break from his mentor, Felicia Henderson (as a writer’s assistant on Sister 2 Sister), then as a staff writer on various shows, and working his way up from there.
I first met Barris in 2003 when I represented him as the co-creator on America’s Next Top Model. Watching Kenya’s trajectory over the years (often with an eye towards the writer’s struggle in Hollywood) and seeing him finally get his own show on network TV (modeled after his own family no less), it only seemed fitting to interview him for this inaugural column about pulling back the curtain on Hollywood.
In short, he (unsurprisingly) echoed Dr. Hunt’s sentiments that mentoring “is invaluable.” I sat down with Kenya Barris at his offices on the Disney lot in Burbank, where we talked about mentoring, how Black-ish came about, and what he hopes his sitcom can do for the future of television.
EBONY: Tell me about the importance of mentoring in Hollywood. You mentioned Felicia Henderson was your mentor. She’s Black.
Kenya Barris: She gave me my first real, real break, which was on Soul Food. It is invaluable. Everyone who makes it [in Hollywood] has someone who takes them under their wing, especially as a Black writer. White writers do it too. You get into a crew, and that’s how you work your whole career. That crew hires you and it expands.
But the hard part about it now is that there are not a lot of Black shows. So it’s harder for Black writers to get into those circles, because they don’t have the friendship bonds and the friendship circles, and people aren’t necessarily comfortable. They don’t know us, so they’re not comfortable hiring us and being in a room full with people 14, 15 hours a day that they don’t know. A lot of times, they haven’t necessarily had Black friends. So it’s harder and harder for Black writers to get into the business.
EBONY: I noticed from watching the credits that you have a very diverse writing staff.
KB: It’s very diverse. We have an Indian guy, one Indian girl. We have three Black women, three Black guys, four White women. And we have four White guys.
EBONY: Okay then, you are walking the diversity walk. Are any of your staff your former mentees?
KB: Yes. Our staff writers, they were my assistants and I brought them here with me. They became scriptwriter assistants and now they’re staff writers.
EBONY: I know you’ve been at this for a very long time, and Black-ish is not your first foray in trying to get a scripted show on the air.
KB: I think it’s my 19th pilot I’ve sold.
EBONY: You’ve sold 19 pilots?
KB: Yes, 19! This is my 16th year writing, and I think every year, if you can, you want to sell a pilot. It becomes part of you. You factor it into your income. It’s just your shot. Especially if you’re on Black shows. For me, it was important to keep my name in “mainstream Hollywood.”
EBONY: And why is that?
KB: Because you want to not just be the guy on a Black show. You want to be the guy who’s trying to keep your name out there and make sure that you’re in the conversation.
EBONY: Did you feel differently about Black-ish?
KB: Yes. Everything just started firing all at once. We hooked up with Laurence [Fishburne]’s company. I knew I wanted him to play the dad. And he liked the idea. Anthony [Anderson] and I were friendly and have the same manager, and I always wanted to work with him. He came on board, and so those are my original partners, along with my manager, Brian Dobbins. We always knew we wanted Tracee [Ellis Ross of Girlfriends, another show where Barris worked as a writer] and we cast the kids and it just happened—everything in a way that I could not possibly have thought kept just happening in an “Oh my God, it keeps happening!” We were really, really lucky.
EBONY: Were your other pilots as seamless as this?
KB: No. I’ve shot a few series before, none of which ever made it to television. I did one series for Hulu and I did one series for BET. I’m talking like full seasons. And I shot one other pilot with Will Smith, but this is the one that just kept feeling like everything was going closer and closer. I think that having in front of the camera talent [attached] is a really big part of getting your project done.
EBONY: Did you have to tap comedian-writer Larry Wilmore to get it done?
KB: No. He came on after the pilot was picked up. The pilot was more Larry guiding me through the process. The script didn’t really change, he was very respectful in that aspect. He came in once we had the room assembled. But he had been there [on series television] and he knew how to deal with the network and actors and things like that.
Larry just has an amazing voice, and he was able to get everyone else to talk about their experiences. He and I became like brothers, and we said that we want this show to be something that was about something. A comedy that was not just comedy for comedy’s sake, but comedy where we’re actually talking about real issues.
EBONY: So would you say that he mentored you in a way on this program?
KB: I would definitely say so. Absolutely. He did and still does.
EBONY: How much of your family life is in Black-ish?
KB: A huge portion of it.
EBONY: Obviously your wife has the same name, Rainbow. I love that name!
EBONY: And she’s a doctor. I remember that.
KB: She’s a doctor. And the kids. Pops is kind of like my father. Ruby is kind of like my mom. But at the same time, I think all of those characters are an aggregate of all the writers in the room. We’re from all different cultures and races, and we just put our own cultural experiences on the table in that room. I’ve found that the more honest and true you are and can talk about a character and people’s experiences, it’s less ostracizing. It actually has the opposite effect than one would think. It makes the characters and the story more inclusive.
EBONY: But there’s an underlying Black theme in a lot of the shows, which I happen to like.
KB: There is. But what we’ve realized is that when you have a real point of view, so many other people relate to it.
EBONY: Right. Like “The Nod,” that was one of my favorite episodes. You wrote that one, correct? I can see your humor all over that! And “Bastard Child.” You know, my parents were divorced and remarried between my brother and I. They mercilessly teased me growing up and called me, believe it or not, the bastard child. So I can totally relate to Zoe’s pain!
KB: No way! Really?! Well that proves my point. You know what it comes down to? It comes down to when you feel like you’re an outsider and you see another outsider. For Dre [the father played by Anthony Anderson], it’s his son. He was a nerd and an outsider. And I think that for so much of our matriculation through American society, Black people sort of feel like outsiders. So when we would see one other, even when we didn’t know each other, we would sort of give the “nod of recognition” that you’ve been through the same struggle, in some way, shape, or form that I have.
But at the same time, I got it with gay guys coming up to me, everyone. I just think that there is something with the specificity of it, the universality to this show is in the specificity. And I think that’s with comedy in general. As wild and raunchy as Richard Pryor was, people related to his honesty because they found something in their life that they understood.
EBONY: But it’s a good story with a good point-of-view that people can really relate to, Black or White.
KB: The universality to this show is in the specificity. You know, I think the biggest difference between our show and The Cosby Show? The Cosby Show was about a family that happened to be Black. Just a family show. Our show is about a family that’s absolutely Black, and that’s sort of what it’s about. Initially, there was a little bit of worry for me, that it was going to be ostracizing and isolating. And in some aspects, I think it’s actually done the opposite. Because of the specificity of it, it sort of opened up to people and pulled the curtain back and made people more interested in seeing parts of themselves that they didn’t really know everyone else shared.
EBONY: What do you hope Black-ish does for the TV landscape?
KB: I just hope this show opens up the door for not just other Black comedies, but other forums of niche programming. And we’ve seen that in terms of shows like Transparent. That was a big comedy this year and it was about a transgendered person. I think it’s a fantastic comedy. I really hope we’re able to start opening the doors for more… I hate to say diverse, because it’s becoming such a sort of catchphrase, but more diverse voices.