Originally published for The Atlantic on April 26, 2020.
What makes good art? This question has dominated entertainment criticism over the past several years—including the deliberation about fairness in evaluating award worthiness at the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys, and a recent standoff between the director Martin Scorsese and the fandom of the Marvel cinematic universe. In the latter, Scorsese—renowned for his canon of classic films that navigate the fabric of Italian American identity in 20th-century New York—argued that the strongest on-camera stories home in on “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.”
This is the challenge that the Black-ish (and Grown-ish and Mixed-ish) creator, Kenya Barris, is facing in his new Netflix series, #BlackAF. Black-ish, a network TV–friendly caricature of Barris’s own life that debuted in 2014, confronts the realities of being a newly wealthy black family in upper-class white America. The show, helmed by Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, who play the husband-wife duo of Andre “Dre” and Rainbow “Bow” Johnson, gives a comedic peek into some of their “post-racial” anxieties. The first two seasons, in particular, try to analyze layers of race, class, and generational interactions, replete with didactic cutaways, nonverbal signifiers of accomplishment via hyperconsumption, and hand-wringing identity crises.
#BlackAF aims to reframe and expound on Barris’s personal narrative in a more self-aware, satirical context, but it ends up just repeating all the same notes from Black-ish. Without fresh source material, Barris fails to bring new complexity and depth to the ecosystem he has created. He steps into the titular role himself, with Rashida Jones playing his wife, Joya, and tries to create a hyperbolic version of his reality as the wealthy creator of a TV franchise.The difficulty lies, however, in the fact that Anderson’s original character was already a caricature, making the parallel world that Barris inhabits not nearly as much of a distinction. #BlackAF replicates Black-ish’s affinity for pedagogical missives, such as ones explaining Juneteenth, which Barris was already lauded for the first time around. And the new show doubles down on the running barbs about Barris’s distaste for his nuclear family, particularly for his emotionally expressive eldest son (Junior on Black-ish, Pops on #BlackAF).
Audiences are treated to Barris’s version of a Curb Your Enthusiasm pastiche act, wherein the only takeaway he has implemented from Larry David’s cult-favorite show is meanness. Barris seems to have plenty that he would still like to express, some of which is quite comedically articulated, but very little of what he does have to say advances the issues that he has been publicly ruminating over for the past seven years.On Black-ish, for instance,Bow is regularly marginalized by Dre’s family for being a working mom who grew up on a hippie commune. That same casual dismissal of her personhood morphs into the cruel minimization of Joya’s biracial identity on #BlackAF. Despite a strong comedic performance by Jones, Joya’s role is limited to a search for fulfillment and purpose, and contextual examinations of her race are filtered through frivolous conversations about her dancing skills and sartorial choices.
Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique—two elements that remain elusive throughout the first season of #BlackAF. If Barris is attempting to highlight the absurdity of engaging in “black excellence” performance politics, he fails on that accord. It’s not clear whether he’s critiquing the inherently flawed premise of analyzing “blackness” solely in its relationship to white supremacy, or whether he’s just capitulating to the “white gaze” of Hollywood. And without an express motive or a fixed frame of reference, it’s difficult to grasp Barris’s target audience.
For instance, in the aforementioned Juneteenth episode, titled “still … because of slavery,” there is awell-executed plotlineabout Barris’s inability to contextualize a mixed-media painting he has just acquired. Made by the artist Knowledge Bennett, Strength in Numbers is an immense black canvas punctuated by luminous white stippling. Barris mutters about gentrification, origin stories, and black boxes. But the episode is punctuated byan appearance from Bennett himself, who elucidates the intention behind the painting, stating, “As black people, there’s so many different things, variations of so many different colors. And it’s the sum total of all of these colors that presents blackness in its purest form—in all of its brilliance, all of its splendor.” It’s a genuine moment that would seem to pull the show into sharp focus, but it is quickly undone by Barris’s insistence that he had made the same point as Bennett. As explained by the TV critic Soraya Nadia McDonald, “#BlackAF isn’t a show about blackness, it’s a show about one person’s near-pathological need to keep up appearances.”
In the most ambitious episode, titled “yo, between you and me … this is because of slavery,” Barris tries to assess black art that gets celebrated by mainstream white audiences. He is asked to hold a panel for a “black film” that, on his initial screening, he deems painfully subpar. Barris is upset that his lower-class family members—introduced in the episode to expose his youngest children to more “blackness”—enjoy a project that he finds pedestrian, one that is also being lauded by white critics. Between Barris’s “very black” family, the amorphous white critics of Rotten Tomatoes, and the “bad” film itself, it is difficult to glean exactly what is being indicted. The segment also seems to entirely ignore the fact that black critics exist.
Later in the episode, after lamenting that he’s never won an Emmy for any of his shows, Barris consults with a high council of other creatives such as Will Packer, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe, and Tim Story. In talking with them, Barris confronts the sentiment that he may be resting on his laurels, riding a current “black wave” with projects that appeal to “the hearts and minds of 55-year-old white women.” Instead of delving into his shows’ thematic redundancy, Barris stops just short of examining how artists may participate in the very systems that they would like to dismantle.
There is nothing wrong with Barris’s work being informed by his particular point of view and experience. In fact, these things can enrich one’s storytelling over the course of one’s creative career. Scorsese has said that “the most personal is the most creative,” words the Parasite director, Bong Joon Ho, honored when accepting the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture. Since the debut of Black-ish, however, Barris has not found new ways to examine himself and his family within the fictive universe he’s created. He seeks to break ground with more contemporary and meaningful discussions in #BlackAF, but they mostly peter out before they have a chance of landing effectively.
The late literary critic Cheryl A. Wall wrote, “Whatever the issues [writers] confront or the questions they puzzle through, they engage, directly or indirectly, the examples of writers before them who used the essay to focus attention on political controversies, to shape aesthetic debates, and to create a space for personal recollection and philosophical reflection.” A show with a title as weighty as #BlackAF should engage in incisive thinking. It’s a difficult exercise, but the payoff would be immeasurable—and that would be the satire I would gladly tune in to.