Breaking down BlackAF

May 10, 2020

Netflix collaborates with creator Kenya Barris for a black family satire.

Several African American stars also appear as guests on the show and some white folks from the entertainment fraternity also drop by.

BlackAF by Kenya Barris for Netflix might not be a show that is ground-breaking in any way but it’s a show that feels extremely fresh, especially when viewed through the lens of local Pakistani television and the programming it has to offer.

Before we dig into the show, a quick introduction to Mr. Barris wouldn’t be amiss. He’s the lauded writer of network shows like Blackish, Grownish and Mixedish, the forty-something year old also co-created the biggest modelling show on-air: America’s Next Top Model, with the iconic Tyra Banks. You’ll hear all this again when you watch the first episode but it helps to have context when the show is largely based on the creator’s life.

With a well-respected body of work already under his belt, Barris’s latest venture is a satirical commentary on a wealthy black family in modern, white America, laced with schooling in black culture. While he might not be covering any new territory in terms of exploring racial themes, it is his style of commentary that really works for BlackAF.

BlackAF borrows a whole lot from a bunch of other shows: whether it’s the documentary sub-structure a la The Office or Modern Family, or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s pastiche act; Barris combines several plot and direction techniques yet somehow the effect is funny and smart. The family dynamic adds wholesomeness to the plot but don’t count on that too much; the show is grounded in a very adult, modern world and does not hold back on the language.

Revolving around Barris’s fictionalized real life, the show chronicles an affluent black family, using the characters as narrative devices breaking down parts of African American culture that might be popularly recognized or stereotyped, stripping away layers to reveal the psychology behind each dynamic. If it sounds instructional, it’s because it is. The show is doused with a healthy amount of facts and real knowledge that doesn’t reduce African American culture to a caricature of what is generally represented through “white gaze” (a concept well explained and explored over two episodes).

As a Pakistani viewer though, what stands out the most is the sheer number of issues and misconceptions that the show takes on, debating both sides before the family makes their choice. The fact that the story carries multiple layers and sub-plots, each well written and well executed is a delight to watch. From explaining why presentation matters so much to the black community to the concept of adultification, the show distills pop phenomenon with insidious inner workings. Despite all the facts it bandies about though, BlackAF never adopts a righteous preachiness, something our local dramas can definitely benefit from learning.

There is a dearth, a glaring deficiency when it comes to the content that is currently being produced by Pakistani writers and directors: we lack clever, incisive dark comedy and satire. What BlackAF manages to accomplish, what we as an audience and as creatives can learn from it, is that there’s nothing quite like holding a mirror up to society and revealing all the ugliness and injustice with a laugh. The writer even critiques his own privilege and work (albeit weakly) but this sentiment of assessment of our own body of work is entirely missing from our nascent industry.

African Americans have only been able to truly claim space on mainstream media in the last couple of decades. That is not to say that there weren’t popular black artists but full, fair representation has been hard to come by. Despite that, there’s a focus on stopping to take stock and to evaluating their own credentials rather than on being self-congratulatory and complacent with success. Whether they’re doing a good job at truly asking the difficult questions or not isn’t important – it’s the very act of asking questions that we need to take away from the show.

Created by Kenya Barris for the online streaming giant, Netflix, the first season of the show is layered with pop culture references.

With only eight, hour long episodes, the first season is loaded with laughter, information and entertainment but it also isn’t a show you can binge watch in a day. Each episode requires concentration and more than two back-to-back episodes can lead to a brain oversaturated and stimulated with no time to process the crash course in black history and culture it manages to deliver.

Rashida Jones essaying the role of Barris’s wife is a riot, especially when reveling in pettiness. The fleshed out characters and personalities of each of the children also add an element of accessibility that allows the viewer to relate to the family and invest more deeply in their lives.

Is BlackAF a perfect show? No, but it’s different and new and has something worth saying. Give it a listen.

The show is doused with a healthy amount of facts and real knowledge that doesn’t reduce African American culture to a caricature of what is
generally represented through “white gaze” (a concept well explained and explored over two episodes).

Breaking down BlackAF