Kenya Barris on Black-ish’s Politically Charged Police-Brutality Episode

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Last night on Black-ish, the Johnson household tackled their most politically charged topic yet: police brutality. The family gathered around the television to watch whether a police officer would be indicted for Tasing an unarmed civilian. "Hope" was a bottle episode, staged more like a play, with the various family members weaving in and out of the living room, debating and disagreeing on how they should talk about the issue with their kids. Vulture reached out to Black-ish creator Kenya Barris to talk about how he conceived the episode, why he chose not to reference #BlackLivesMatter, and the influence of Norman Lear.

How long had you been thinking about doing an episode on police brutality?
You know, it's interesting. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but I would not say that the episode at its inception was about police brutality. It really was about the notion of having to have hard conversations with your kids. We chose to use police brutality because we felt like it was the best subject matter for the times. And I do think it’s something that needs to be talked about. Personally, that's how it came about in my life. I was watching the Ferguson indictments, and my 6-year-old son turned around and was like, "Why are all of these people so mad?" And I wanted to dive in with a comment. My wife warned that we needed to meter what we said because they still need to grow up in this world, and they need to form their own opinions and let their own experiences guide them. At the same time, we were conflicted because as parents, it's our experiences that we're supposed to impart to our children so they don't have to have all of the bumps and bruises we went through. So it was this battle, this duality between the devil on my shoulder and the angel. So we were like, "Parents must be going through this constantly, with all of the internet and phones and this and that." You can't shut it off anymore. That was the basis of the episode we wanted to do, and then I felt that the indictment would give us a really good platform with which to talk about it. 

Why did you choose to do a fictional indictment while still referencing contemporary things that have happened?
We thought that the fictionalizing of it would make it a little bit more palatable. And at the same time, we aggregated a lot of the different things that happened a lot in these cases, and put them into that fictionalized case. 

Did you face particular challenges writing or producing the episode?
From a creative standpoint, I found it very schizophrenic. Sometimes I was loving it, and sometimes I was hating it. But basically it was my own anxiety, because I'm a comedy writer, and it's just not heavily funny. You can hide behind jokes a lot of the time, but once you're telling a story and you don't have those jokes to hide behind, you feel like someone's pulled the towel out from under you after you got out of the shower, and you're a little bit more naked. So that was a little bit of the challenge, in terms of the writing.

In terms of production, we had an amazing director, Beth McCarthy-Miller, who was really comfortable with the proscenium style. She's done a lot of SNL; she's done a lot of live stuff. She's an amazing director, so she got in and we just vibed all week. I feel like the actors really stepped up. It was like doing a little play. They felt the importance of what we were talking about. In that aspect, it went really smooth. It was probably the best table-read I've been to in a really long time, and that gave us a little bit of faith that maybe it would turn out okay. 

I’m a sucker for bottle episodes, and I was struck by how everything just unfolds around the television. It very much felt like how you would experience watching the verdict.
That's what we wanted to do. We wanted people to feel like they were the fly on the wall of a family conversation.

Did it make it easier or harder to shoot with all of the actors in the same room at the same time?
You know, you would think that it makes it easier, but it really actually makes it harder, because what you're trying to do is create motion, you're trying to create movement; levels of dialogue have to be created that feel like you could have asides. What became really important to us were the throw-to clips and the flashback clips, because those were moments of levity we felt were really going to be needed to let the audience continue on this ride with us. It was very fun, but a lot of work. It's more work than it probably looked like. It's very hard when you create that claustrophobic tableau to make people not feel claustrophobic but still make them feel like they're involved in the conversation. 

I wanted to talk about how you wrote about Dre and Rainbow talking about their fear that President Obama would be shot during his inauguration. That was a really powerful moment.
That was really written honestly just from being an American. When I watched that inauguration, it was so interesting because a lot of reporters in the background when it was happening, you heard them saying things like, "President Obama is wearing one of the first Kevlar-woven suits." They were basically saying, "We are just as afraid as everyone else at home," without saying it. Because we all were like, "I know the place that I live. I know the things that happen where I live. And if something were to happen right now, this would tear the country apart." And not just black America. I think the hopes of a huge portion of the country were invested in him. 

Did you have conversations with the child actors, specifically Miles and Marsai, about the episode beforehand?
We had a couple pull-asides to talk to them, but their parents had had their own conversations with them. And everyone came to play that week.

Do you feel like the show was instructive for them?
I hope. I think they will view it live with everyone else. They have not seen a pre-cut. I hope they know they're a part of it and that there's something they can take from it. I do often feel like the kids on the show are extensions of my own kids. I've gotten to see them at a really interesting time in their life. We've been together probably a year longer than the audience, and I'm seeing them grow up, and that's just an amazing thing to have the opportunity to do. I take a lot of personal responsibility in making sure they're okay and that they feel comfortable with some of the things we ask them to do. There are times when they're like, "I'm a little uncomfortable about this," and I'll either talk to them or I'll say, "Then you don't have to do it." I feel like it's important for them as human beings and as actors to feel like they can speak their mind and stretch their arms in a really comfortable way.

What do you think the political role of television is?
It's interesting because I specifically didn't reference #BlackLivesMatter or anything like that. This is a family show, and I don't want to ever politicize it. I know sometimes we talk about topics that are politically adjacent, but one of the things we try to do is make sure we handle them evenhandedly, and that we don't ever land on one particular thing. If there is a role for this show that we'd love it to play, it's just to start a conversation. Riots happen because you have a people who feel like they're voiceless. You have a people who don't feel like a dialogue is open to them. If we can help open up a dialogue, whether it is about a thing like swimming or just perception in general, and make people laugh, that's the only political thing I would want to do. Whether it's to be had just in your family, whether it's friends, with your local law enforcement, or on a bigger level with the government, we have to figure out what's happening, and we have to also look at both sides.

That should be the job of any piece of creative art. If you look at a painting you love, hopefully, that painting spurs a feeling which spawns a conversation. 

There is a lot of disagreement within the family itself.
That's important to me. I feel like people are much more open to listen to something when there's a pro and a con presented to an argument, when it's not just a bashing. There's two sides to any situation. And it's important in network television in particular to try to present both of those sides.

But to push back, don't you feel that at the end, the family does decide that attending the protests is an important thing for them to do together?

A lot of people could read that as landing on a side, but I also think it makes sense for them to do that.
That's a good point you bring up, but I feel like if you're attending a protest — if for nothing else, in support of the parents for a child that they've lost or a child that's gone, you feel like you just want people to open up. There's no doubt that police brutality exists. That's not something there is a conversation to be had about. That's like saying, "Does murder exist?" It absolutely exists. That's not the side that I'm landing on. The part I don't want to land on one side or another is, are the police bad? My personal opinion is no, they're not. Some may feel differently. I do feel like they have done some bad things. Are they a significant and important part of society? Absolutely. For me, the bigger thing is to say, "What is the conversation, and what conversation can we start to change the narrative?" And that's what I think going to the protests is about, saying that we understand there is something that needs to happen. 

With your show and Jerrod Carmichael's The Carmichael Show, and other shows like The Fosters, there's a strong Norman Lear influence. What is his influence on your work, if at all?
One hundred percent. Every writer is derivative of someone, if not several people, and there is huge amounts of Norman that I'm derivative of, as well as Spike Lee, as well as Woody Allen. But I definitely feel like his contribution to television in particular is something I would like to see come back to television.

Finally, I wanted to ask about Paul Lee leaving ABC. He really valued diverse programming, and I'm curious to hear what you thought about his exit and Channing Dungey's promotion.
The two are unrelated in some aspects, in terms of the question. His exit is obviously awful for me. I love Paul, I consider him a friend, he bought the show. He gave me and my family a platform and an opportunity to change my life, so I'm always going to be very grateful for that. At the same time, I know Channing. She's an amazing executive. She is beyond capable. She is beloved around town. She is a supporter of the show. She's been at the company for a while. I knew her before she was president. Very shortly after I came on, Ben Sherwood came here, and he's been a great supporter of the show. The network in general has let us do a show I don't think any other network would have let us do in this sort of way. So I feel like it's business. It's a part of the business that is not my role to guide. I think Channing is going to be an amazing president. I wish Paul all of the best, and I appreciate him for his faith in us, and I appreciate Channing. She immediately called and let us know that she is behind the show and she supports it, and I think she's going to help the show do really great things.