#SaltyAF: Has it become impossible to make Black audiences happy?
OPINION: Blue Telusma writes that if you're sick of Kenya Barris' story, that's fine. But he still has the right to tell it.
Over the weekend Netflix finally premiered its highly anticipated Kenya Barris offering #blackAF and as per usual Black Twitter wasted no time giving its thoughts.
As is to be expected some people loved the show while others were simply like “Eh, this isn’t for me” — two stances that I completely think are valid and deserve to be expressed. Art is subjective, and so it’s healthy to have folks on both ends of the spectrum sharing their gut reactions.
However, as I scrolled through my timeline, it was a third group of critics that made me raise a brow and then pick up my laptop to write today’s article, and that is the vocal minority who saw it fit to collectively scream, “BUT THIS AINT BLACK THO!”
In the words of Nene Leakes, “Whoooo chile! Y’all are wearing me out.”
Now don’t get me wrong, on the surface, I actually get where this knee jerk reaction is coming from, and the pain and frustration from which it stems is #ValidAF. We live in a world where whiteness and/or one’s proximity to whiteness is always being centered even when the narrative is supposed to be about Blackness. Trust me, you’re preaching to the choir on this one.
But fam, the direction that this ire is being pointed in – i.e at one Black man who didn’t build the system and sure as hell can’t fix it on his own – is woefully misguided.
And in my not so humble opinion, these increasingly angry hot takes are starting to foster a hostile consumer environment that has a lot of Black and Brown creatives asking themselves:
“Has it become impossible to make Black audiences happy?”
When staying in your lane takes a wrong turn
Before we get started, let me make it clear that this is not a review because as I stated previously, I’m actually not all that concerned with people’s subjective tastebuds. You are allowed to like or dislike whatever you want.
What this is really about is taking a second to flip the camera back toward the audience and give you guys a heads up about how some of your currents “asks” – that sound great in your fire and brimstone think pieces and make for viral Twitter one-liners – don’t actually translate well as real-life action items.
For example, let’s take the fact that we’re always telling creatives – of all races – to stick to creating what they know. Everywhere you look Black audiences are quick to remind folks to stay in their respective lanes. But can you honestly say there is anyone out right now who does this as much as Barris?
In #blackAF he is literally playing himself. So my main point of confusion is, how do you get mad at someone for being themselves? That is like PEAK “stay in your lane” vibes.
Another person who has followed the directive to know her place, but still managed to piss ya’ll off is Rashida Jones.
For those who are unfamiliar with her work, Jones is an undeniably good actress. In fact, you would have to just bold-faced lie not to acknowledge her resume or her comedic timing.
— Dalton R Murphy (@RaiderMurph) April 21, 2020
The only real feedback I’ve seen of Jones during these debates is that people are mad her parents had sex and made her. Which is not only woefully misguided but also completely out of her control.
What IS in her control though is what roles she takes and how she navigates her Blackness. And from what I’ve seen she is aware of what she looks like and does a pretty good job of playing within the confines of her own archetype as a racially ambiguous woman of color.
Even in this latest offering, despite the show being called “blackAF” at every turn, her character Joya Barris acknowledges that she’s also “mixedAF” and notes how that is a very specific iteration of Blackness that not all Black people can relate to.
I honestly thought Black Twitter would’ve loved all those moments of nuance and self-awareness the writers gifted her with. But instead… some people are acting like she threw caution to the wind, slapped on some blackface, and attempted to play Nina Simone in a biopic.
So again I ask… WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO MAKE YALL HAPPY?!!!!!!!!”
Rashida Jones is just as “black” as:
Tracee Ellis Ross
— windu (@windu_son) April 20, 2020
Context always matters
For those who might not have noticed, I’m a brown skin Afro-Latin woman, which means I come from a culture that is about 40 years behind America in the “wokeness” department and in 2020 still pretends like I don’t exist.
So if there’s anybody in this world who would love to see more beautiful brown-skinned people depicted on television, it would be me. However, even with that being said, if I was watching a biopic about the DeBarge family, it would be really intellectually dishonest of me to say, “Damn, I wish they had made Chico brown skin so I could feel seen.”
Uh… say what now?
CONTEXT matters fam.
And in that context, putting in a darker complexioned Black person, just for the sake of saying you did so, would literally make no sense. And I think THAT is what my biggest problem with the critique of Kenya Barris and all the shows that he has very blatantly told us were about his family.
How do you get mad at a man for accurately depicting his own story which included his actual wife and kids?
— MissExblackly (@MissExblackly) April 19, 2020
Because Black people have so very few depictions of themselves in the media, we often find ourselves wanting every Black creative to speak for all of us at the same time. And while I understand the generations of exhaustion that stems from, it’s still an impossible – and dare I say unreasonable – request.
For those who say the title is what threw them off, OK. Then maybe the show should’ve been called “What Happens When Ninjas Gets Rich.” That’s a semantics issue that I hope you don’t decide to make the hill you die on.
But for those sincerely focused on progress, Black representation isn’t just a matter of randomly throwing dark-skinned folks into whatever shows we can squeeze them into. It instead means that we have smart, intelligent shows where Black people of all hues and lived experiences are allowed to be their authentic selves.
And whether you like the show or not, #blackAF was definitely authentic to the experience it speaks to.
My homegirl is biracial and has a nouveau riche Black father who acts just like Kenya Barris, down to the urban wear and expensive gold chain. So when she saw the show she loved it and related to it on a cellular level. So this idea that they missed the mark isn’t necessarily true.
So what’s the answer?
Instead of being mad at one depiction of Blackness being portrayed shouldn’t we be fighting for more depictions of Blackness to be added to the line up so it actually looks like the diaspora?
Pitting different types of Black folks against each other in debates where we act like all Black people are “Excellent” Obama clones OR Madea Tyler Perry types is dangerously oversimplified.
In my mind, the ideal situation would be a landscape where there’s room for both extremes and every shade in between.
In fact in episode 5 — which in my opinion is the standout episode of the whole season and their best shot at an Emmy nod — Barris had the guts to actually have Perry come on. The mogul played himself and was hit right in the face with a bunch of those critiques that you and your cousins have been writing about him on the internet since day one.
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— Shambetheking.ent (@shambetheking) April 18, 2020
And while I don’t want to spoil too much for those who have yet to watch the show, the self-awareness that both men and the other Black Hollywood “gatekeepers” featured in that episode (i.e Lena Waithe, Issa Rae, Will Packer, Ava DuVernay, Tim Story and Will Packer) all showed was like a breath of fresh air.
Black folks have been systemically oppressed, impoverished, and mined for their most precious resources for years. So much so that the one thing we all seem to agree we have any longstanding control over is our “realness.”
Which is why when one of us becomes rich, famous, or successful, a lot of us subconsciously ask ourselves, “But are they still keeping it real though?”
In the Black community, authenticity is considered even more precious than gold even during this Instagram-able era we live in where most people only show their highlight reels.
And safeguarding that authenticity is something Black A-Listers who’ve been knighted by the White Gaze to create work on our behalf are constantly tasked with. But before we dismiss “these new Black ninjas” as lost causes, it appears that there may be hope after all.
From what I’ve seen while mingling with these people at industry events around Los Angeles is that a lot of these creatives don’t just understand our concerns they also share them. At times, they are even haunted by the responsibility of making us happy while still building their own empires.
So for those who say #blackAF is unrealistic, I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree. It’s a stunningly, and at times almost uncomfortably accurate depiction of Barris’ experiences and the experiences of those like him.
I think the real issue here is that a lot of ya’ll are just blown that it highlights a facet of the Black experience that you haven’t personally been afforded the opportunity to experience (yet).
If you’re sick of Barris telling his story, that’s fine. But I don’t think we have the right to tell him that he can’t tell it. None of us benefit when Black voices are muted. So if you really believe our stories matter, that has to include even the ones that you don’t personally recognize.
Blue Telusma is a Senior Writer at theGrio, whose viral think pieces have been featured on CNN, HuffPost, Buzzfeed, USA Today, BET and several other national news outlets. Her work mainly focuses on dissecting pop culture, promoting emotional intelligence and fostering activism through the arts.
Follow writer Blue Telusma on Instagram at @bluecentric