Yara Shahidi Is a New Kind of Young Hollywood Mogul

This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag

Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.

Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”

The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.

For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.

Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives. 

Versace dress, price upon request, select Versace stores, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 

It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n

I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential. 

At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.]. 

The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with. 

Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited. 

Alberta Ferretti polo, $695, shirt,$495, and pants, $525, saks.com, Christian Louboutin heels, $895, christianlouboutin.com, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 

The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever. 

In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible. 

I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

#BlackAF Fails to Break New Ground

Originally published for The Atlantic.

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, #BlackAFBlack-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.

Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.
Satire requires a clear definition of the intended audience and the subject of critique.

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.