Best of 2016: Black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris talks police brutality episode
In February, ABC’s Black-ish aired an emotional, effective episode about police brutality that showrunner Kenya Barris says was inspired by conversations he had with his son about the events in Ferguson, Missouri. EW spoke with Barris when the episode premiered about why he wanted to make this episode now, how he mixed humor with such a serious topic, and what kind of reactions he hoped the half-hour would spark. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that conversation below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you decide that now was the right time to address police brutality?
KENYA BARRIS: This is not a politicized episode. It’s about police brutality that’s been happening not just now — it’s actually about a conversation with your kids. And the conversations that happen with your kids happen to be around a police brutality case and they decide how to talk about it. I think it’s an important conversation to have with your kids.
Ultimately, we tried to make sure we didn’t [politicize the show]. There’s no politicizing the idea that police brutality is wrong. That’s like saying murder is wrong. There’s no real side to land on that. No one’s pro-police brutality. Where Rainbow and Dre do land is, even though they have different points of view about maybe police in general, they do both agree that something needs to be done in terms of what’s happening with police brutality.
Did you look to conversations you’ve had with your own family when writing this?
Yes, absolutely. It literally kicked off from my son during the Ferguson indictment period. When the results were coming out, whether they were going to be indicted or not, my son, Beau — at the time he was like 6 or 7 — turned around and said, “Why are these people so mad?” And it really kicked off a conversation between me and my wife and how to actually answer that question.
How did you answer?
I wanted to answer sort of similar to how Dre answered, but ultimately what came out and what was sort of the basis of the episode is my wife felt like it wasn’t fair to sort of impose our — my — experiences on my son. And he was going to have to form his own experiences, but at the same time, I did feel like, as a parent, we had those experiences so we could pass them onto our kids so they don’t have to have the bumps and bruises we go through.
The entire episode takes place in that small area of the living room and the kitchen. How’d you decide to not take them outside, to not see them at the protest?
I felt like that was going beyond what the scope of the episode was. We wanted you to feel like you were a guest that was getting to listen in on a conversation that a family would have about a topic that was hard to talk to their kids about.
How did the actors respond to the material?
It was very positive. They understood there was some importance to it. They understood that they had to sort of be on their game because of the way it was shot. They really stepped up. I was really, really happy with it.
It’s a relatively dramatic episode, but it also, of course, has some really funny parts. How did you find a balance between serious and silly? Were you worried about one overpowering the other?
Absolutely. The reason I’m sort of nervous is because there aren’t so many jokes to hide behind. We didn’t want to have it so joke-heavy that we trivialized the situation and the seriousness of the topic they were talking about. We really just tried to make sure we gave ourselves enough balance to still get the point across but at the same time, give people an entry point where they felt like they could get into it and not be bummed out the whole time.
Do you have a favorite moment?
I think when he’s talking about Obama. It gave me chills when I was editing and watching it back.
Did you, from the beginning, want to show images from the past?
I wanted to show that this is the world that we’ve been living in for awhile. And these things have happened and all those things were things that parents probably had to talk to their kids about at the time.
Did your own childhood factor into this episode?
For me, one of the big things I really worried about a lot was nuclear war growing up. There was this movie called The Day After, and I was totally terrified of nuclear war. I used to talk to my mom about it constantly, constantly, constantly. Drives-bys and those things weren’t so much of a conversation I had because they were much more part of my everyday life. Something like nuclear war that I had no control over, I remember that haunting me for years.
When did it stop haunting you?
You get a little older and you start understanding the world in a different way and what you don’t have control over and what you do have control over.
The episode is titled “Hope.” What does that mean to you?
That’s sort of what we wake up for every day. We wake up with a sense of hope, or with a sense that things are going to be better for us and even better for our kids.
What are you most proud of about this episode?
Just that the network allowed us to do it and that we got it through. I’m very interested to see what happens and if it starts a conversation and what kinds of conversations those are.
Is that what you hope happens? What do you hope the audience takes away?
I hope nothing more than that they got some laughs, and that it sparks a conversation between them and their family or them and their friends and those conversations spread out into something else. The best scenario would be that it motivates some change.