When news first broke that ABC would be premiering a show called black-ish in 2014, the premiere was met with mixed reactions. Many viewers were thrilled by the return of black family sitcoms post-The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Everybody Hates Chris, and The Jeffersons, but others — and you know exactly who — were infuriated at the notion of a show that centred race in a time when many were pretending race didn't exist.
black-ish was successful, no doubt due to its razor sharp writing and the talent of its cast, and its success led to more stories emerging from the imagination of showrunner Kenya Barris. grown-ish followed suit, then mixed-ish, each series met with its own controversy.
But that didn't stop Barris from telling his stories. In fact, the naysayers only strengthened his resolve to move away from the network television space, where he was restricted by a laundry list of unspoken rules and PC culture. The writer and producer soon inked a deal with Netflix to create another show about another black family, this time securing a starring role for himself in the project. It was originally titled Black Excellence, but blackAF just seemed to be a better fit.
The full first season of Netflix show premiered on April 17, but people had formed their hot takes on the series long before it even became available for streaming. Viewers just couldn't seem to agree on how they felt about blackAF — who exactly was the series made for? For some, the show simply appeared to be a remake of black-ish without the censorship of network television. (To be fair, Barris' paternal figure is strikingly reminiscent of Anthony Anderson's Dre Johnson, expensive tracksuits and all). For others, it's casting was the main problem.
Like so many of the showrunner's other series, blackAF's cast is composed almost entirely of lighter-skinned and/or mixed race black people. Yes, they're all undeniably black, but what does it say when a show about black people only seems to prop up a certain aesthetic of blackness, especially in an industry with an observable problem with colourism? Early reports of blackAF spawned a social media-wide dialogue about representation, with users questioning Barris' go-to casting tendencies; the writer clapped back, defending the characters by explaining that his own very black family looked just like the one in his new project.
blackAF is fully aware of the nuanced discourse that's going on around the show, and its Gen Z stars Genneya Walton and Iman Benson have officially entered the chat, pen and paper in hand. If you ask the young actresses, for whom the Barris production could be considered their big break, the wide range of opinions and hot takes floating around black Twitter is perfectly healthy — in fact, it's the reason that the show even exists in the first place.
"I think that when you work so hard on something, it can be upsetting to see negative comments about it," Walton admitted to Refinery29 prior to the debut of the series on Netflix. "But the conversation that the show is starting is very important. Colourism is alive and well in this industry — you'd have to be willfully ignorant to deny that."
Her co-star and onscreen sister is in full agreement. Both stars have copped to their privilege, and that acknowledgement comes with a responsibility to listen and learn, no matter how harsh the critique.
"I want to be an ally within the black community," said Benson. "To be able to make sure that I'm learning from different activists and scholars what I can do to bring awareness to certain things and use my privilege to support the community."
Ironically, say the actresses, their privilege hasn't exactly protected either of them from the pitfalls of being black in Hollywood. Both young women have their own industry horror stories of being confronted by expectations from casting directors and studio heads alike to portray black femininity in a certain way. For hopeful black actors just starting their journeys, there's pressure from every side to take any and every part that comes their way; saying "no" to roles, even problematic ones, can be a nonstarter. That's why blackAF, controversy and all, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the pair.
On the show, Benson plays Drea, the second-oldest of Kenya and Joya (Rashida Jones) who records her family hijinks as part of her application to New York University's film school. Walton stars as Drea's cool, free-spirited older sister Chloe. The oldest of the Barris kids (and likely the most self-aware in the family), Drea and Chloe fashion their own modern views on life, which happen to clash every now and then with Kenya's sometimes problematic takes. The sisters are fully themselves, even when that doesn't sit well with their dad — something that its stars identify deeply with.
"I found about the pilot before even reading the script," said Walton. "And when I read the script, I resonated so much with Drea. It felt like I knew her, and I felt like I understood the dynamic that she had with her father very well. It was just so familiar."
"Being on the show was so cool," Walton shared, revealing that she had also originally auditioned for the part of Drea before the casting team alerted her of Chloe's character. "All of us who ended up booking it discussed, after the fact, that each of us had come across the project and immediately knew that there was something special about it."
blackAF isn't a perfect show by any means, and similar to the storylines of its predecessors, its characters won't resonate with everyone; just like Rainbow Johnson (played respectively by both Tracee Ellis Ross and youngster Arica Himmel) and Zoey Johnson before her, Joya Barris is one black woman on TV that I just don't relate to. Still, as I binged the series, there was something about the show I couldn't quite put my finger on that compelled me to talk to other black people about it. No matter how the work makes us feel, we're talking about it because it makes us feel something. That's exactly Barris' goal, forcing viewers (black or otherwise) to think about things in a different way and start a dialogue
In blackAF, Barris confronts many of the familiar issues that black people all over the diaspora struggle with: familial relationships, the white gaze, and what it means to be black. It's a sitcom, complete with ridiculous moments and endless banter, but the show is also a self-aware social commentary, courtesy of a man who has been mulling over the topics throughout his whole career.
Both Walton and Benson are hopeful that as the first season of their show sparks hot takes that span the spectrum, it will also increase the community's knowledge of the diversity of blackness.
"I just want people to gain a bigger sense of empathy and compassion," Benson. "To walk away with a better understanding of the black experience and get a deeper sense of where we come from and where we're going."
"Blackness is in no way monolithic," closed Walton. "It comes in so many shapes, shades, and forms, but there's always something that we can relate to and connect with somehow."
blackAF is now available for streaming on Netflix.