Kenya Barris spoke out on some things in a recent profile-ish.
In this week’s cover story for The Hollywood Reporter, Barris pretty much covered all of the main topics surrounding him—touching on why he left his $100 million Netflix deal halfway through his contract duration terms, the backlash and critique he received after the Brown-ish project with Eva Longoria was announced, and what he plans to do with his new Viacom partnership.
It was the Brown-ish report that added to the running jokes about Barris’ steadfast ability to milk his -Ish franchise (Black-ish, Grown-ish, Mixed-ish, Old-ish) for all it’s worth.
“It was never going to be called Brown-ish, but even if it was, why is it that we turn on ourselves?” Barris noted. “It immediately becomes, ‘Oh, he’s doing another family comedy.’ It’s like, yeah, I’m going to do 20 family comedies—no one questioned Norman Lear.”
It should be noted that the critique Barris has received extends beyond his preferred genre of TV comedies. Though the TV shows he creates are typically autobiographical in nature and the actors reflect the people in his real-life family, the critique revolves around colorism and the significance of someone with his platform and status highlighting proper representation and inclusion in his content.
Barris also touched on the critique he’s received for primarily catering to white audiences with his work. Barris admitted that he does actually want white people to love his work—he essentially wants a wide range of audiences to like his work.
“That’s Hollywood,” he said. “That’s the people who made the movies I love. Why would I not want them to like what I do? People are like, ‘You’re tap dancing.’ And I’m like, ‘Am I tap dancing, or am I wanting Michael Jordan to think I’m good, and I’m LeBron James?’”
Speaking of G.O.A.T. status, it appears Barris is on his way to change the industry. In October of 2020, Barris’ name was all over the trades when it was reported that he was entering a partnership with Viacom, with one of the major aspects being that he’ll be co-owning a studio. But first, he had to sever his relationship with Netflix.
Long before a racial reckoning prompted the 46-year-old to reevaluate his priorities, the Netflix marriage had been imperfect. Barris wasn’t willing to be the broadly commercial producer that the streamer wanted him to be, and Netflix wasn’t interested in being the edgy home that Barris craved. He isn’t even sure the company would have re-upped his $100 million deal had he stayed, but it didn’t matter. By January, his reps had untangled him from the pricey partnership, as they’d done with his Disney pact a few years earlier, and hammered out a new deal that gave him equity—roughly a third, according to Barris—and a board seat in what would become BET Studios.
“I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice,” Barris told THR’s Lacey Rose. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.”
“The good news for us is we’re still in business with Kenya on many fronts and we’ll be in business with him for a long time to come,” Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said. Barris already has some vacation film franchise spinoffs of #BlackAF developing as well as a drama with 50 Cent, an animated music series with Kid Cudi, a documentary chronicling civil rights attorney Ben Crump and another documentary about the friendship between Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Barris’ studio equity stake is connected to BET Studios, as the deal came about from a meeting with BET president Scott Mills.
More background on BET Studios via THR:
Plans to line up other major Black producers as equity partners have been a challenge — “It’s still Viacom,” says one top rep — and the general uncertainty in the marketplace only adds complexity. “I don’t even know who’s going to own Viacom in six months,” says Barris. The title, BET Studios, has also been hotly debated, with Barris firmly against it. He was overruled by Mills, who’s committed to strengthening the brand name.
“Within our business, BET doesn’t have the kind of reputation that they want to have, so what I face is getting people to understand that, under Scott Mills, change is afoot,” says Barris’ manager, Brian Dobbins, himself a major player in Black Hollywood. To Mills’ credit, he’s actively cultivated relationships with top Black talent and their representatives, which has translated to projects from Lena Waithe and Lee Daniels, among others. Adds Dobbins, “And now getting a big shark like Kenya to jump into the water says that the water’s a little warmer and a little safer than you might have thought it was.”
Additionally, Barris has quite a few big things in the works, including a record label with Interscope Records, a podcasting deal with Audible, a book deal with Random House and a first look film deal with Paramount Pictures.