'black-ish' creator Kenya Barris on finding humor to heal following a 'shocking election'

The Emmy-nominated ABC series ‘black-ish” has won critical accolades since its 2014 premiere for exploring provocative issues surrounding race. The show, about an upper-middle-class African American family living in a predominantly white neighborhood, has managed to wring humor out of episodes tackling police brutality and the complexities of the N-word along with more traditional sitcom plot lines.

But when the show’s creator, Kenya Barris, came to grips with the fact that Donald Trump, who had built much of his campaign around racially inflammatory comments and viewpoints, had been elected president of the United States, he found little to laugh about.

Barris, a big fan of President Obama and a supporter of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, wrestled with his own shock while also trying to comfort his distraught wife and children.

Although he had distanced himself from ‘black-ish” this season in order to focus on developing other TV projects, Barris felt compelled to return to the series and write an episode to sort through his conflicted feelings about Trump’s election. That installment will air Jan. 4, 2017.

He also said that the series, which had become relatively lighter in its current third season, will use humor to further examine the country’s racial and cultural divides. (One of the projects Barris is developing is a show about an interracial couple who are pundits on opposing sides of the political aisle. Felicity Huffman is set to star.)

In a recent phone interview, Barris explained his response to the election and his  plans for “black-ish” in its wake.  

The election and reelection of President Obama, along with the popularity of “black-ish,” “Empire” and other series that show inclusion of cultures, felt like an indication that there had been an embrace of multiculturalism in the last few years.

(Laughs). Yes, it seemed that way.

But this election seemed to demonstrate otherwise.  What do you feel happened, or was that opinion wrong?

Like many people, I have been in a reflective place since the election. I believe there was a sense of smugness that began to permeate our thinking, the feeling that “We’re right. Our argument against this person is an easily won and right argument.” That point of view, I believe, infuriated the right, the conservatives. They took a stance of “We’re going to show them.”

As someone who grew up in poverty or poverty-adjacent, there’s nothing that speaks louder to you than “I’m hungry” or “I wonder if my lights are going to be on.” There is a huge part of the left that forgets that fear comes first for a lot of people.

Someone put it to me like this: I have cancer and Hilary is saying, “I’m going to increase the amount of cancer clinics. I’m going to increase your medicine so it can be cheaper. I’m going to increase cancer awareness.” Then the other candidate says, “I have the cure to cancer.” I’m going to listen to that person with the cure, even if in my heart I know it’s not true. Just the chance that it might be true — you can’t fight that. Trump offered a sense of change. 

There was talk in our writers room about maybe the electoral college will turn over the election.  I said, “What? So we can start a civil war? I don’t want this president either but, guys, let me tell you, I’m black and we’ve never gotten what we want. This is not the way.”

Do you feel when someone can express inflammatory views about race, as Trump did, a sensible person can say,  “Yeah, that’s not great, but otherwise he’s a great guy?”

As a logical person, I feel it’s really hard to excuse the gross atrocity of a person and follow that with “But he’s a nice dresser” or “He’s still a sweet man.”

There were 50 million people that voted for Trump. Fifty-million people are not crazy, or racist or misogynist or xenophobic. Maybe 1 million of them are, maybe 5 million are. The point is, we can’t just call them all crazy. We have to find a way to reach out to each other and find common ground or else we’re literally never going to make it and this country is going to get worse.

What was going on with you on election day?

I was in shock. I’m ashamed to say that because of the things that have happened in this country, to myself. It keeps happening. I could not believe it. I bought into the rhetoric, bought into the smugness, bought into the pollsters, who I think should be eliminated from the process..

This obviously sparked something in you.

I wasn’t going to write on “black-ish” this year. I have pilots. I have some movie things going on. But as a showrunner, I woke up that Wednesday and said, “I have to write. I have to write about this election, how I feel, how I want us to heal.” The last week of my life has been gearing up for the episode that comes on when we return in the new year.

How do you reflect your pain and that of those around you and still offer a bridge to the voters who supported Trump?

The show is not my personal pulpit. It has to open a conversation. My job is to really speak from an intellectual place, look at what happened and to understand the one thing I know. [Many in] the country felt a different way, and we cannot treat them like they’re crazy.

That attitude is how my people have been treated my entire life. When Obama was elected, if the electoral college had found a way to turn over the electoral votes and not elect him, black people would have reacted: “Here it is, once again, we’re being disenfranchised.” My job is to open up the conversation on both sides, and say “Where are we now? How did we get here?”  I want to do something on what this black American family is feeling and doing in relation to the world around them.

What about other episodes?

As of Wednesday night after the election, we want to get back on track in terms of really digging and talking about things that are a little scary to talk about, get back to heftier issues. The topics have been lighter this season because you get caught up in the election  and there’s so much to deal with. You can hit people over the head so much it turns them off. But I feel, at this point, we have to talk about something. 

 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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