“I Want to Do In-Your-Face S***”: Kenya Barris on Why He Left His $100M Netflix Deal to Launch BET Studios

The showrunner turned mogul reveals a new record label, podcast venture, book deal and a first-look film pact: “It’s a special time in this industry if you’re Black and you have something to say.”

by Lacey Rose | Special from The Hollywood Reporter

On an otherwise quiet Friday in October, Kenya Barris watched as his name hurtled through the headlines.

The stories weren’t about a new project he was writing or directing, though there were plenty of those; instead, the creative force behind Black-ish#blackAF and Girls Trip was eyeing an exit from Netflix — the first of the streamer’s nine-figure producers to depart, and only halfway through his multiyear deal. His next act, per the flurry of reports, would be a stake in some sort of studio venture with ViacomCBS. The details were still spotty, accelerating the gossip mill and leaving many in Hollywood wondering: What had gone wrong?

“I think a lot of people thought I got fired or I quit, like ‘Fuck this,’ over some kind of beef with Netflix,” says Barris, speaking publicly about the move for the first time — but the truth was more complicated, as he revealed over a series of conversations, which began with lunch at the members-only San Vicente Bungalows in early June.

Long before a racial reckoning prompted the 46-year-old to reevaluate his priorities, the Netflix marriage had been imperfect. Barris wasn’t willing to be the broadly commercial producer that the streamer wanted him to be, and Netflix wasn’t interested in being the edgy home that Barris craved. He isn’t even sure the company would have re-upped his $100 million deal had he stayed, but it didn’t matter. By January, his reps had untangled him from the pricey partnership, as they’d done with his Disney pact a few years earlier, and hammered out a new deal that gave him equity — roughly a third, according to Barris — and a board seat in what would become BET Studios.

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Kenya Barris was photographed June 4, 2021, at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. PHOTOGRAPHED BY JILL GREENBERG

“I’ll call this a diversity play, in some aspects, because it’s important to call a spade a spade,” says Barris, acknowledging that “it’s a special time in this industry if you’re Black and you have something to say.” The plan, at least as he envisions it, is to sell premium content from underrepresented voices to outlets inside and out of the ViacomCBS portfolio. Already, Barris and the writers he’s helped to recruit have ideas for Hulu, Apple, Showtime and Starz, to name only a few. “I want to do in-your-face shit,” he says with his trademark bombast. “I want to sell to everybody — and if you don’t want to work with me, I’m not saying that you’re racist, but other people might.”

Seizing on the moment and his growing cultural capital, to say nothing of his bulging Rolodex, Barris quietly added a record label with Interscope, too, along with a book deal with Random House, a podcast partnership with Audible and a first-look film deal with Paramount — and he intends to have them all working in synergy, with him, a self-described “Black dude from Inglewood,” as its nucleus. “So, if we sign an artist on the record label and she’s amazing, it’s, ‘Can we put her story into a podcast, keep the IP, and then go take that to Netflix and sell it as a doc?’ ” he says, and you can almost see the wheels spinning. “Or if we get a book from Random House that we love, ‘Can we turn it into a TV show or a movie, and then do a podcast to supplement it?’ “

Though there are still more questions than answers, Barris has been busy staffing up (his Khalabo Ink Society is now at roughly 40 employees), signing artists and prepping his first collection of essays, which he’ll likely title This Is Basic Shit: Things We Know That We’re Shocked You Don’t. Even Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, with whom Barris still has plenty of business, offers praise: “Kenya has an opportunity to have an impact and legacy that few even dare to dream of.”

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“Music is such a key part of what I love doing,” says Kenya Barris, photographed June 4 at Quixote Studios in Los Angeles. KENYA BARRIS PHOTOGRAPHED BY JILL GREENBERG

Netflix was supposed to be Barris’ savior — and in the summer of 2018, he was all but certain it was.

The prolific producer had been at loggerheads with his then-employer, ABC, over a particularly charged episode of his flagship, Black-ish, titled “Please, Baby, Please,” which wove events like the NFL kneeling protests into a bedtime story. Instead of allowing a neutered version to air during the Peabody-winning series’ fourth season, Barris agreed to scrap the episode. Not long after, he asked to be let out of his four-year contract, which he’d entered into only a year earlier.

With Barris suddenly on the open market, Netflix swooped in. The streamer’s offer wasn’t as lucrative as one Warner Bros. put forward, but the platform itself was an easier sell. “If I was going to step out, I wanted to do something where I could take off all the straps and really hang out of the plane,” he told THR at the time, using words like “loud,” “bold” and “unapologetic” to describe what viewers could expect. Not two years later, he released #blackAF, with each of its eight episodes titled “Because of Slavery.” The series wasn’t initially envisioned as a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style platform for Barris to play a version of himself but morphed into that at his urging. It launched in April 2020, and quickly became the most divisive thing Barris has ever made, an outcome that he insists thrills him — even if the pans from the Black community clearly rankle.

Among the show’s more vocal critics was Charlamagne tha God, who ripped #blackAF on his popular Breakfast Club radio show, telling listeners it was like “white people doing a bad impression of Black people.” Barris would be lying if he said such comments didn’t sting, but claims he’s more interested in cultivating “thought leaders” like Wes Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell, who’ve offered kudos. “Do I want Charlamagne to like my show? Yeah, I do, but I have to be honest with you, I care way less if Charlamagne likes my show than if Malcolm Gladwell does,” he says. “Because my taste is my talent — and Charlamagne has his lane, and it’s a very successful lane, it’s just not the lane I want.”

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“We went to New York recently and it was the first time they saw people recognize me, and they were not prepared,” says Barris, pictured with his wife and five of their six kids. AMANDA EDWARDS/WIREIMAGE

Barris has been dragged for purportedly “making TV for white people” so many times, he actually wrote it into a storyline on #blackAF. He contends that he’s just trying to make TV that audiences, white and Black, want to watch, and maybe even helps them understand each other better in the process. And for the record, he does care what white people think of his work. “That’s Hollywood,” he says. “That’s the people who made the movies I love. Why would I not want them to like what I do? People are like, ‘You’re tap dancing.’ And I’m like, ‘Am I tap dancing, or am I wanting Michael Jordan to think I’m good, and I’m LeBron James?’ “

Still, it didn’t take long to see that #blackAF wasn’t exactly in Netflix’s wheelhouse either. “For Netflix, say we got 35 million viewers, they were like, ‘Well, it wasn’t Fuller House,’ ” says Barris, acknowledging that he often struggled to present the types of projects that excited Netflix executives, though a forthcoming drama with 50 Cent is said to be a clear exception. At one point, execs there tried to get Barris to run one of their multicam comedies — he won’t say which, but multiple sources say it was the critically maligned, since canceled Jamie Foxx sitcom, Dad Stop Embarrassing Me! — but he patently refused. “I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice,” he says now. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle.” He pauses, and then rephrases: “Netflix became CBS.”

Those inside the streamer say that Barris, at least in the early days, was too focused on niche ideas. Ironically, as those same sources point out, he seemed to have no trouble churning out big fat commercial films, including ShaftBarbershop and the Eddie Murphy hit Coming 2 America for Amazon. His eye was often caught wandering into other arenas, too. In fact, he’d all but finalized a podcast deal with Spotify, only to have Netflix executives kill it. “They said, ‘Well, we have a podcast,’ and I’m like, ‘Where?’ ” recalls Barris. “But I’m sure they do, or they will, and in their defense, they gave me a lot of money to make television.” And he intends to continue making plenty of it for the streamer, too, beginning with more #blackAF, which he reveals is forgoing its planned second season in favor of stand-alone #blackAF family vacation films in the vein of the National Lampoon vacation flicks that he and co-star Rashida Jones grew up loving. Already, he and the writers have been batting around ideas for #blackAF: Brazil and #blackAF: Mexico, by design — both are popular Netflix territories.

When it comes to Barris’ real-life family, he admits that he’s more comfortable with his rising profile than his six children, who range in age from 4 to 21, are. At least one or two have asked that their father stop acting — and though he insists it won’t be his focus going forward, he is eyeing a part in the Meet the Parents-meets-Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner comedy that he’s co-written with Jonah Hill, which he’ll also direct for Netflix later this year. It’s not the lifestyle that the Barris kids object to, of course, but rather the unwanted attention paid to such things as their dad’s growing real estate habit or his on-again, off-again marriage to their doctor mom. (For the time being, the two are still separated.) The regular potshots can be hard for them to stomach too, particularly the accusations of colorism, since every comedy Barris has created is based on his own family, which includes his biracial wife and their lighter-skinned children.

One of Barris’ daughters called him recently in tears over a dust-up surrounding the ABC Latinx family comedy that he is developing with Eva Longoria at ABC. The network’s new entertainment head, Craig Erwich, had referred to it as Brown-ish in an interview, and the backlash was swift and ugly, with one popular Tweet proclaiming, “black-ish, grown-ish, mixed-ish, brown-ish … na bro I think it’s time for you to FIN-ISH.” Barris, who’s still intimately involved in the “-ish” universe, with Black-ish readying its eighth and final season at ABC and Grown-ish still thriving at Freeform, is hopeful the project can survive the media maelstrom. “It was never going to be called Brown-ish, but even if it was, why is it that we turn on ourselves?” he says. “It immediately becomes, ‘Oh, he’s doing another family comedy.’ It’s like, yeah, I’m going to do 20 family comedies — no one questioned Norman Lear.”

As for Barris’ daughter, she would have preferred he clap back in the moment. “She was like ‘Dad, they’re trashing you, they’re making these ‘ish’ jokes, you have to say something,’ ” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Kaleigh, when they stop making ‘ish’ jokes is when we’re in trouble.”

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