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Blackness Is Mythical in Netflix’s BlackAF

Kenya Barris as
Kenya Barris as “Kenya Barris” in BlackAF. Photo: Netflix

The title is a provocation of sorts. With its much belated hashtag, Netflix’s #blackAF (formerly Black Excellence) promises a sitcom that is, to translate, extremely black, whatever that could possibly mean these days. On cue, much discussion about the show, among and beyond TV critics, between people who both watched and have yet to see any of it, devotes itself to whether Kenya Barris can indeed cash that check. The same could be said of previous Barris productions, Black-ish, Grown-ish, and Mixed-ish, each with its own racial melodrama baked into the name. It is oh too tempting to evaluate his first Netflix project by the terms premised most consistently by its front matter: the presumptuous logline, the adverb-laden title sequence (unapologetically! Unforgettably! Unabashedly! Unforgivably!), the Jay Rock theme song, the Netflix-y Strong Black Lead of it all. But allow me to resist.

In Black-ish, the hedging suffix -ish bespeaks the show’s elemental anxiety that the trappings of the middle-class good life undermine a racial claim. BlackAF’s ardent abbreviation — AF for “as fuck” — elides a concern about that concern. This time the family, molded onto Barris’s own, and with Barris playing a fictionalized version of himself, is conspicuously rich rich, having more in common with recent soaps like Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse or the Elizabeth Gillies–headed Dynasty reboot, minus the camp. The running motif is that Kenya, sad sack, wears blackness like a badge. Pride for his people is most coherently and perhaps singularly expressed through commerce — the will to adorn himself with the fruits of “black-owned” luxury, or, more usually, stuff black people seem to like.

The show’s vision is ostensibly guided by his daughter Drea (Iman Benson), who’s compiled the footage we’re watching for a documentary to be included in her film school application, a gimmick that becomes less than convincing almost immediately and even less so as the season progresses. Professionally shot, we’re told, on a budget that exceeds The Revenant’s, the camera maneuvers with the familiar restlessness of a knowing single-cam that exceeds the plausible eye of a teenager, even one inclined to view her family with skepticism.

For Drea we can blame the appropriately juvenile historical inserts, in which some topic or other is insisted upon as the episode’s suturing theme by way of the plantation. The uncaptioned slideshows featuring photographs of the enslaved and other archival debris are as dislocated from the rhythm of the show as the history they document. We are reminded that slavery is never really over, that the bond between antebellum and modern-day values and experiences is linear and unbroken. An episode “about” fathering — as much as every episode is, technically, about fathering — collages images of chain gangs, sharecroppers, and crying babies to illustrate the bad rap attributed to black American fathers. “It fucking started back in slavery,” Kenya exclaims to his writers’ table. His analysis laments the generations upon generations accumulative disappearance of black men from the household — and plays right into the hands of the infamous Daniel Patrick Moynihan report on the Negro family. We are made to pay attention to this. Everyone at the writers’ table gets to take a nap.

Meanwhile, the actual and much more entertaining plot of the episode follows the tit-for-tat parenting battle of the sexes between Kenya and his wife, Joya (Rashida Jones, allotting the right amount of zany to the role). Is Kenya Barris, either the fictional one or the nonfictional one, stunted in some way by the aftermath of the coffle? Probably. Sure. But that seems much less revelatory of Barris family dynamics than the contemporary domestic drama between a couple that is too comically self-involved to worry as much about raising their children as about who deserves credit for it, and can afford to do so. In a sister episode “about” motherhood, Joya goes, in Drea’s words, “full dad,” reaching into slavery’s monstrous intimacies to justify her latest exercise in narcissism, a memoir à la Becoming by Michelle Obama (“Chapter One: Why Babies and Molly Don’t Mix”). Her buddy-buddy, go-girl publicist, our surrogate, responds mid-diatribe, “Okay.” Joya’s jig is recognizable to everyone but her, offering plenty opportunity for comedy, but the satirical note is never sustained. “Okay, I don’t know why everything has to be about history with you, Ava,” Kenya quips on a cameo-filled conference call with DuVernay, Tim Story, Issa Rae, Will Packer, and Lena Waithe. BlackAF searches for a more oblique relation to history than the projects that attract DuVernay, but isn’t quite ready to let the feel-good storytelling of a collective past go, even when it finds that storytelling marginal to things at hand. Episodes conclude with reminders of the big message, in case you didn’t get it the first time.

Out of such tenuous historical claims, which by default become, in the show’s thesis, cultural claims, I am left to wonder more about the titles of each episode. All in lowercase in what’s now most commonly recognized as the un-self-serious vernacular of the internet, the titles riff on Kenya’s admitted interpretative lodestar, “because of slavery.” In episode five, Kenya deflects a question about his generation’s general insecurity with that answer. “Whatever question you ask me, the answer’s gonna be ‘because of slavery,’” he tells his daughter. “So, yes, I can do this all day.” Maybe the joke of episodes called “because of slavery too” and “still … because of slavery” doesn’t hinge on white discomfort. The joke clowns a historical claim as it makes one, undermining our collective impulse to draw out every petty grievance — and what is a sitcom if not a collection of petty grievances? — as evidence of the Middle Passage. The show suggests this in its cheekier moments, yet routinely recoils. What is Kenya Barris afraid of?

A shame, that. If noncommittal on both the meta and the commentary, BlackAF gives good domesticity, trapping its main characters in the claustrophobia of an open-floor plan. The family’s fatigue with each other, only sometimes passing for playful, almost (almost) runs sanguine off a cliff; phallic insults are as regular as designer threads. The distillation of these interactions is not the problem of how to be black and rich, but how to fit a family into the disparate lives wealth affords them. If the legacy of slavery is here, it must be cropped and inserted.

In the third episode — theme: Juneteenth — Kenya wants to make sense of a painting he’s just had hung. The enormous canvas is beautiful and black, textured by a swarm of white dots that look gray in the light. Kenya ponders his purchase for a moment, letting us and/or the NYU admissions committee find an echo of the painting in his monochrome Kaepernick jersey. “It came,” he announces. The family is less than impressed. “It’s a black square,” Joya shrugs. Kenya is insulted on the artwork’s behalf, yet for all its profundity, an articulation of its importance fails to cohere. “It’s obviously a piece on blackness” — so he says before the flailing begins. “The white flecks … specks, they represent, like, the assimil— What it is, this is a piece on what it’s like to be black — a black man in America. And the white specks represent, like, assimilation and gentrification … It’s a postmodern contemporary piece on gentrification, anti-gentrification, and gentrified.” Joya wonders how much it cost, implying the possibility that her husband “got took.”

The painting is “about spirituality,” “the essence of who we are,” we’re told when real-life visual artist Knowledge Bennett (minus one t) arrives to repair Kenya’s disservice. “As black people, there’s so many different things; vibrations of so many different colors. And it’s the sum total of all of these colors that presents blackness in its purest form. In all of its brilliance, all of its splendor.” There is a yearning in that explanation, a deep, maybe soul deep, desire to unite a disparate people under one agreeable sign. That same yearning undergirds the premise of BlackAF, but unlike a painting, the show cannot so easily box in its subject. What BlackAF demonstrates above all, in spite of itself, is that there may be nothing aesthetically consistent about blackness in our current era. “Black AF” is rhetorically weighty, but ultimately a myth.

Blackness Is Mythical in Netflix’s BlackAF