Kenya Barris gets 'Black-ish'

Clark Atlanta grad opens up about provocative ABC comedy

Wednesday October 29, 2014 04:00 am EDT

"I came to Clark Atlanta because I wanted to be Spike Lee," says Kenya Barris, creator of ABC's provocative new show "Black-ish," which premiered September 24. "I knew that Morehouse didn't have a film program, and Dr. Herb Eichelberger, who was actually Spike Lee's point person, was at Clark."

And, in Spike Lee fashion, Barris, the Los Angeles native, who spent the early '90s in Atlanta, has generated his share of controversy. Even before the "Black-ish" premiere aired, the title alone had some twitching or even boiling mad about this show starring Anthony Anderson as a successful marketing executive. The lead character, Andre Johnson, and his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor, are raising four kids in an affluent household that differs a lot from the one "Dre," as he is known, grew up in. And for good measure, his dad, Pops (Georgia-born Laurence Fishburne), lives with the family to reinforce that shift.

"It just really was a title that sort of spoke to me and my life," says Barris, whose credits include writing stints on television shows "The Game" and the "Are We There Yet?" as well as a consulting role for "America's Next Top Model."

"I think as you're looking at your kids today, in general, the experience of what I remember 'growing up black' isn't the experience that my kids are having," Barris says. "So it's sort of a filtered-down version of that. And then, at the same time, I look at their friends who are all different nationalities and they have a little bit more of an exposure to black culture, so they, in an additive way, are sort of 'black-ish,' so it sort of spoke to the family dynamic that I saw my life being."

The first episode directly hit at this point when Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) let it be known that he wanted a bar mitzvah like his Jewish classmates. "I think the challenge of the show on a continuous basis is that we are looking at a situation in which a character is raising his kids in a different situation than he grew up in," Barris says, elaborating further on the overall premise of the series. "I think that's what makes the show fun. I think people can kind of relate to it because that's not a new issue. We all sort of are coming from a place, or our kids are growing up in a place, that's not necessarily how we remember growing up, and our parents did the same thing with us."

And it's sort of this universal underpinning that really centers the show. Therefore direct issues of race, culture, and belonging, as they relate to the black American experience, aren't all that "Black-ish" covers. A recent episode dealt with spanking (filmed long before NFL player Adrian Peterson's trials as a parent sparked a national dialogue), and another centered on Andre's son masturbating and needing "the talk," subjects that are very mainstream and even somewhat standard sitcom territory.

The show seems to have found success in the creator's push to deliver its message on Barris' terms, something he says he learned to value during his time spent in Atlanta. "I was at a place that was at the culture pivot point," he says. "My best friend who between then and now passed away, Shakir Stewart, went on to run Def Jam. ... There were just a lot of people there at that time who went on and did really well. They were all part of my crew. It was interesting to sort of be a part of that. To go and meet people from all over the country ... people who were there at a time when culture was sort of changing and certainly the culture we're in now was being formed."

Responding to the current cultural landscape is what Barris, alongside his creative team, is hoping to accomplish with "Black-ish."

"We want to be relevant," Barris says of himself and his multiracial writing staff. "And hopefully we land that with our stories. We want to be honest and tell funny stories ... and be as truthful about the world that these characters live in as possible." There is a caveat, however.

"We African-Americans are just like everyone else, but we're not," Barris explains in more detail. "I think that's really important to say that we have our perspective and our point of view in which we look at things but, at the same time, that there's a universality in that we're trying to have the same conversations with our kids but we might do it in our own way."

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