Kenya Barris made Hollywood headlines this summer when he decided to part ways with ABC, only to sign a lucrative, eight-figure deal weeks later with Netflix. Speculation swirled as to whether or not a shelved episode of his hit show black-ish had anything to do with his departure from the Disney-owned network.
In a new cover story for The Hollywood Reporter, Barris breaks his silence speaks on everything from the shelved episode of black-ish to Roseanne to his plans to create “unapologetic content” with his new Netflix deal. The cup of tea is so full, we will do you the favor of breaking it up into bits so that it is more easily digested.
The “Please, Baby, Please” episode of black-ish was going to depict Dre, as portrayed by actor Anthony Anderson, telling his baby son Devante a story about all the events that had happened during his first year of birth. The topics to covered included Donald Trump, the Charlottesville hate rally and NFL players kneeling.
“When you’re putting a baby to sleep, you’re trying to soothe whatever anxieties they’re having,” Barris told THR, in his first public statement about the controversial episode. “So, this was about me trying to pat the butt of the country and soothe people.”
The episode was narrated by Spike Lee and paid big money for rights and clearances to use the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
“We approached it with the network and the studio as, ‘This is different,’” Barris said. “We certainly knew people would talk about it.”
Days before the episode was supposed to air, it was shelved indefinitely by the network, and Barris told THR that was the last straw for him in what had already become a complicated relationship between The Walt Disney Co. and himself.
And then there’s this:
There’d been a flurry of back-and-forths with executives as high up as CEO Bob Iger, who called Barris from home, sick with laryngitis, and, per two sources, had a reasoned conversation with the showrunner about the political sensitivities of being a broadcast network in 2018. Executives at ABC, more than any other network, have been forthright about their desire for more red-state programming since Trump’s win — and with Barris’ latest episode, they feared they’d be alienating the very population they’d tried so hard to court. That Disney brass wouldn’t want to poke Trump himself just as the company was seeking Justice Department approval of its acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox is widely believed to have been a factor as well.
Ultimately, Barris said his decision to leave ABC wasn’t just about the shelved episode, but also the limitations of network TV.
At one point black-ish got scheduled to follow the Roseanne reboot in the television lineup. Barris told THR that if the show had not subsequently gotten canceled, he was prepared to speak out against it.
“Because fuck Roseanne,” he said. “She’s a fuckin’ monster. And they were like, ‘Why is this monster killing villagers?’ And I was like, ‘Because that’s what a monster does.’”
When word got out that Barris was on the market and available, Warner Bros. threw their hat in the ring to try and woo him, but he ultimately decided to go with Netflix because of his bigger vision.
“I worried that at the end of the day I was still gonna have to do pilots and I was still gonna have to do network television,” Barris said. “It was the hardest decision for financial reasons because it was an amazing, generous offer, but if I was leaving ABC to go to Warner Bros. I feared I might be dancing to the same [song].”
Barris said watching Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes get out of her ABC contract and make the leap over to Netflix inspired him to make the jump.
“I’m doing what I’m doing because of her. She’s a black writer but she wrote shows and that opened up the door for the types of things I wanted to do,” he said. “And for someone who was that successful at network TV for that long to make that move [to Netflix] made me understand the atrophy that can happen.”
“‘Diversity’ became this catchphrase for the easing of liberal guilt and I felt like there was starting to be an overcorrection, which often happens, and overcorrections tend to re-correct themselves,” Barris said. “Plus, I didn’t want to be a part of a moment; I wanted to be a part of a movement.”
Ultimately, Barris is very clear on what his goal is as he begins his new partnership with Netflix.
“I want to be Netflix with attitude — loud, bold and unapologetic.”