In This Issue
Hearing Anthony Anderson and Laurence Fishburne pitch black-ish, creator Kenya Barris tells EBONY he knew “we had a really good chance of doing something special.” This year that “something special” is ending after eight seasons—and it’s a television milestone.
Given that black-ish revolves around a successful couple—one an ad exec, the other a doctor—with a large family, along with bonus live-in paternal grandparents, comparisons to The Cosby Show are, of course, apt, but Barris is very clear that black-ish was its own thing from the very beginning. “For me, The Cosby Show was what it was,” Barris explains. “The idea of seeing anyone of color on a network in general was groundbreaking. I always will applaud the show for that. But, hopefully, what we ended up doing is a show about a family that was absolutely positively about being Black. I thought with The Cosby Show, you could have replaced those characters for a lot of the storylines.”
While Barris is clear that black-ish is one faction of the Black experience, he is proud that he got to do it without trying to compromise for anyone's sake. "Hopefully that’s what the legacy of [black-ish] is and we made people see us in a way that they haven’t seen us before,” he says.
His show's brand of uncompromising Blackness is present in the way they tackled police brutality in season two’s “Hope” episode or Trump’s election in season three’s “Lemons” episode. Episodes like “The Nod,” from the very first season, or “Juneteenth,” in season four, took more internal or celebratory looks. This season the show even used guest star Michelle Obama, as it has with other guest stars, to explore bigger issues. With the former first lady, black-ish put a spotlight on how hard it is for Black professionals to find comparable friends. “You almost end up putting yourself in a cage by your success,” laments Barris, a proud Clark Atlanta University alum. With the exception of the “Please, Baby, Please” or the so-called “Colin Kaepernick episode” tackling the unrest during the Trump administration, gun violence, and more that ABC shelved in 2018 over “creative differences” but aired in 2020 to praise, Barris marvels on how much ground the show covered.
“So many things that we got to do on that show, I really felt like were things that I never thought [we'd] be able to do on network television. I think, in some respects, we helped change the perception of what Black America was for people who didn't really know.”
Barris is also quick to reject claims of the black-ish audience being predominantly white, as advanced in a 2017 NPR article. “By far we were one of the largest, if not the biggest watched show, in Black households,” he pushes back. “They use numbers to create narratives.”
That doesn’t mean he is not appreciative of the non-Black audiences that support black-ish. “One of the things about expanding the brand of what it's like to be any niche group that's looking to make their presence be known and their voice be heard is to expand to as many people as you can,” he shares.
But, for him, those claims that Black audiences didn’t watch was a way to subtly undermine black-ish and its impact. “Whenever you can get people to say, ‘yeah, but that's a white show’ or things like that, it's like we're not big,” he explains. “It’s like a way to sort of tear us apart but that's why the NAACP Image Awards meant so much to me. Because we swept year after year after year after year and, to me, it was almost an indicator and a nod from my tribe to say, ‘we’re watching, and we see you.’ And that meant a lot to me.”
Why end now? “Everything comes to an end,” he explains, hinting at both the financial issues and the impact streaming services like Netflix, where he landed a huge deal, have had on network television. He also talks about the creative fatigue. “At the same time,” he adds, “those actors have been doing this for a long time. They were ready to do other things. The writers have been doing it for a long time. It's eight seasons but it's nine or 10 years we've been doing that and it’s time for people to grow.”
Overall, he feels good about this moment. “I’d love for everyone to tune in. It’s really special that we even get a last episode. Shows, so often, they are just canceled,” he says. “We really get a chance to say goodbye to the family and to see the evolution in the way that we've got to grow up with them and they got to grow up with us and see where we’re at in this country. So, I think it's a really important, special time to say goodbye to it.”