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Kenya Barris on Creating Black-ish’s Election Episode in Record Time

The Black-ish team has never produced an episode as quickly as they did Wednesday night’s “Lemons.” Showrunner Kenya Barris started writing the Trump-themed episode the day after the election, and worked through Thanksgiving so they could shoot and edit over Christmas. Just a handful of days away from the inauguration, it encapsulated the anxiety, despair, and frustration that many Americans felt after the election, while echoing the optimism of President Obama’s tenure. Vulture got on the phone with Barris to talk about writing the episode, his upcoming political comedy Libby and Malcolm, and what he meant when he wrote, “We all woke up knowing what it felt like to be black.”

I want to congratulate Tracee Ellis Ross on the Golden Globe. I’m sure that was very exciting for everyone.
Thanks, man. That was really exciting. I know she was so excited.

What did you think of Meryl Streep’s speech?
I love Meryl Streep. I understood her speech. I do understand that there were moments that could have felt like it was alienating. But she’s up there and she’s passionately taking a stand. Everyone’s not going to love everything you say. So I support her. It’s hard to take a stand. You’re not going to make everybody happy.

She’s someone who can make a statement on a huge stage like that.
I agree. And she’s someone who should do it, because it matters from her in a really big way.

The episode that aired last night was about the devastation many felt after the election. What was it like watching the election returns for you?
Literally a cacophony of different emotions. Unfortunately surprise was not one of them. Disappointment was one of them. Frustration. Deflation. A lot of different things. I was not surprised. There were a lot of indicators before it happened that it was going to happen, and it actually made me want to write the episode.

The speed with which you wrote and shot the episode is very impressive.
It was literally the day after and I wanted to write it. Because I had been hearing so much for so long about people feeling certain ways, and everyone complaining. It was scaring me because I have kids and I felt like the way that people were talking was not setting up for a place where there was a future. It was very fatalistic and doomsday. And I understood where those emotions were coming from. I really felt like the only way we were going to have a future is if we start a dialogue. That’s ultimately what we try to do on the show, which is start a dialogue, and so I felt like, what better place to start a dialogue than in the show?

Was it difficult to produce that quickly or did you have a very clear sense of what you wanted to say?
It was very, very difficult. I had to immediately write. I asked a director if he could switch his slot because I wanted to direct it. Our post team had to work like crazy. We were writing over Thanksgiving, editing over Christmas. We knew we wanted to do it, but it was definitely the quickest we ever produced an episode.

I was trying to think of TV shows other than late night or South Park that actually respond to big, current events that quickly, and this seems like a rarity in that case.
Well, this is a rare moment. We’re in a rare era in time in terms of where we’re at in society. I feel really lucky that I was even able to have something that allowed me to get out what was inside of me and hopefully could start a conversation. I feel really lucky to even be in the place to do that.

Were there any surprising things that happened on set while shooting?
The way that Anthony took to the speech just had everyone on set crying. And just chills. He was amazing.

I’d like to unpack the speech Dre makes to his co-workers. He says, “We all woke up knowing what it felt like to be black” after the election. I felt like that was a very provocative statement to make.
Dave Chappelle, who’s one of my idols, went and he did what is now a famous SNL monologue and SNL hosting job, and one of the first sketches he did, he was watching the election with his white friends. And they were like, This is awful! Oh my god! This is the worst thing to ever happen to America! And he was like, “The worst thing?” What Dre was saying, he wasn’t trying to be provocative with the line. It was saying, one of the most divisive things in this country from its inception has been race. And I feel like as a black man within black culture, I know very well firsthand — as do my parents and my grandparents and great-grandparents — we’re used to things not going our way. It’s part of our DNA and our relationship with the country. When he says, “Now you know what it’s like, we all woke up feeling black,” it’s like maybe we can all sort of feel disenfranchised from the country, and all feel like we took a gut punch. Instead of now saying we’re black and we’re white, we can all stand together as one. Not as black people, not as white people, not as minorities versus mainstream, but as Americans. That’s what he was trying to say. We all know what it’s like to feel like you’re not a part of the process. And now we all can try to fix it together.

There are a lot of echoes with Obama’s message and what his presidency stood for.
I definitely felt that. It touched me. I was so just honored that some of the things he was saying were echoing. Everyone would know that there’s no way I heard that speech and then went and wrote my episode.

Was it difficult to get the rights to use the clip from Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech?
It was, and I credit my post department and ABC with that completely. They worked their asses off. And the King Foundation and ABC News. It was a lot of behind-the-scenes working to get it done.

The conversations between the grandfather (Laurence Fishburne) and Junior were interesting. Do you feel like the show is trying not to land on a political ideology as much as a sense of optimism?
Yes, 100 percent. It’s not a political show. When we talked before, one of the things I really want to do is to give you as many as different entry points, and as many different perspective as possible, and let you take away from that what you will rather than tell you what we think you should feel.

How do you feel?
I feel much the same way as Dre did. I’m scared. I’m looking around. I hear the things. I’m not blind. I was a liberal supporter. I was a Hillary supporter. But at the same time, like what Obama said in his farewell speech, which was amazing: The constitution is just a piece of parchment unless we the people activate it. I think that’s what the episode was trying to say. We the people need to activate ourselves and make the country better, and one of the best things we can do is to start with having conversations with the other side so they can be a part of whatever solutions we’re going to do for the future.

I wanted to talk about the new show you’re working on for ABC, Libby and Malcolm, about a politically polarized couple, and what the goal is.
I really want to do what Veep did. Veep in a very comical way gave us a look inside the political machine, but I want to do it for the average American family. For what a network family is. I want to pull the curtain back on the political process. Just like Brexit was in the U.K., I don’t think most Americans really know how politics work. And I don’t think most Americans really understand that at the bottom of it, everyone just really wants their kids to be okay. Even if you don’t have kids, you just want the future to be good if you had kids or kids that you know. And I think having a couple that has a family they care about, but they’re coming from different sides — hopefully that lands on the populace.

They’re both media pundits.
They’re pundits, yeah. Mary Matalin and James Carville, a world like that. I think it’s important to cross those aisles, and they decide in order to cross the aisle, they’re going to walk down the aisle.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Kenya Barris on Black-ish’s Trump Episode