Netflix #blackAF review: Why Black People Need to Stop “Blacksplaining”
After seeing #blackAF heavily hash-tagged and panned on my feed all weekend, I caved into the hype and binge-watched the hotly anticipated 8-episode Netflix show from Kenya Barris, the creator behind Black-ish and so many Black-centric hits. And it wasn’t that bad….it was worse. After watching #blackAF all I could think was, #WTF?
Barris, stars as Kenya, an ornery, uber-successful Hollywood producer, father of six, and husband to a Rachel Dolezal-ish wife, played almost too perfectly by Rashida Jones. His daughter turns her professional camera crew on him for her film school project, following him as he deals with chronic racial discomfort and identity issues within his ultra-liberal, wealthy, white-washed bubble.
Netflix’s #blackAF is shot as a semi-autobiographical show, much in the style of Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Like David, Barris’ namesake is all dry wit, excess profanity and self-deprecation. And sometimes, he’s even funny. In front of the camera, Barris, the Emmy-nominated, NAACP Image Awards-winning writer-turned-first-time-actor, is clearly out of his comfort zone, which lends to his character’s charm and believability as a fish out of water among the upper echelons of a mostly white industry.
At times the show interweaves Black History 101 with commentary on current issues. Vintage footage gems add a wonderful educational element to early episodes. In one, we see Black women in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement marching alongside Black men and getting hosed and beaten by police, juxtaposed with White women leading less belligerent protests during the Women’s Liberation Movement. Because they couldn’t be two places at once, Black women were forced to choose between being a woman or being Black. In conversations with his staff, friends and family Kenya’s character debates interesting issues like Black fathers’ contributions to their households being overlooked in pop culture; and of course Tootsie vs. Juwanna Mann. Why can’t Black cross-dressing comedies be classics, too?
Where #blackAF missteps is that like so many recent Black-titled shows (i.e. Black-ish, Dear White People, A Black Lady Sketch Show), in attempting to “Blacksplain” the African American experience, it reinforces embarrassing stereotypes. In seeking the approval of those they claim have historically wronged them, these shows lose credibility.
Kenya is on a mission to prove he’s still blackAF despite his enormous success and wealth. Yet he is ravenous for Caucasian approval from his White friends and respect from his White staff to the point of obsession.
Rashida Jones’ green-eyed, brunette-haired Joya, is an ambitious ex-attorney who suffers from tragic-mulatta syndrome. She trumpets her Blackness at every chance, in a loud, ignorant, ghetto imitation of a Black woman. She even writes her skin color on her Starbucks cup (Black Joya) and admonishes her Black sons for not knowing how to dance. Its distasteful. And it feels even moreso coming from someone who looks more like a Rachel Dolezal than a Viola Davis.
Unlike with Curb Your Enthusiasm, in #blackAF little effort is given to character, supporting cast or plot development. The main characters fail to form meaningful bonds with one other, making it hard for the viewer to emotionally invest in them. Even powerhouse cameos from Ava DuVernay, Will Packer, Tyler Perry, Issa Rae, Tim Story, Steven Levitan, Lena Waithe (and Beyonce?) feel under-utilized and awkward. Literally in one scene, music executive extraordinaire Scooter Braun walks in introduces himself and walks off. Literally.
The one breakout star of the show is 19-year-old Iman Benson, whose level-headed, smart, film student Drea glues the scenes together with her sage and sarcastic talking head observations.
Essentially #blackAF unpacks stale stereotypes and re-wraps them in a glossier package — complete with a flashy, orange sports car, glass mansion, a Fendi-packed wardrobe, private jets and Molly. Then it serves it back to us, bland with no storyline. The thing is, like true wealth, Black excellence doesn’t scream, it whispers. It remains, like The Fresh Prince, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Living Single, Girlfriends. These classic shows portrayed successful African-Americans in relatable scenarios living, loving, mourning and thriving, at work, school and home, with friends, lovers and family, all while being proudly, unapologetically Black.
But there is nothing proprietary about being “Black” or else it wouldn’t be so easily caricatured, as in this show. These days it almost feels as if anyone could simply download “Black” and appropriate it or buy it off the rack at a sample sale. And we have shows like #blackAF to thank for that.
It’s time for Blacks to stop “Blacksplaining” themselves to White people. Enough is enough. Being Black is enough. But when it comes to TV shows, it helps to have a deeper story to share. One that can hopefully draw us together instead of wedging us farther apart. I can only hope that Barris, who reportedly inked a mouth-watering $100,000,000 development deal with Netflix last year, digs deeper and looks further for more original, captivating stories. With his track record and Midas touch, he is more than capable. Netflix’s subscribers deserve more than this.