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'Black-Ish' Creator Kenya Barris Says Show Will Take New Direction Post-Election


The 2016 election exposed a deep divide in the country, as we've been talking about, over race, ethnicity, gender, economic opportunity, demography. Hollywood is often seen as a bastion of liberal elites, and yet it makes the shows and films that are meant to appeal to the whole country. We talked with Kenya Barris a few days ago, the creator of the network sitcom, "Black-ish," about the conversations he and his staff had in the wake of last week's election. He encouraged his employees to keep an open mind.

KENYA BARRIS: We can't make things worse, you know? I think the whole - the way that this happened in the first place is because we have not been open. I just saw an article about the smugness of liberality in this country. And I think that that sort of turned a lot of people off - is that we felt like this was half the country, literally split down the middle, felt a different way.

And we - you know, on the left, a lot of us felt like, oh, well, they're uneducated and they're being conned or they don't really understand the issues and this - and that's - there's a smugness to that that sort of led to exactly why people feel the way they feel.

MARTIN: You acknowledge that, then. I mean, that especially gets labeled...

BARRIS: One hundred...

MARTIN: ...On Hollywood, in particular.

BARRIS: One hundred percent. You know, and if I'm just going to be, you know, candid, I feel like white people are finally feeling what black people have been feeling all the - all along, you know what I'm saying? Welcome to my America. [Expletive] didn't go your way and now you're pissed, you know what I'm saying? Like, I'm pissed, too. I've been dealing with my kids crying, my wife crying. I'm beyond upset.

But you know what? I'm - I feel like the thing that - I was like, this is the time when maybe instead of using this as a situation in which we, you know, cower and pout and have protests saying not my president for two years, maybe this is the time, since finally we have a sort of unified notion that together we're not black, we're not white, we're not Latino, we're not Asian. We're really Americans who we feel like got, excuse my language, [expletive] together. We can use that in a good way to sort of erase a little bit of the sort of racial dynamics that have been between us and say let's unify along this and actually do something to rise.

MARTIN: Let me ask you then - in your corner of the world, as an artist, as a creator, as the creator of this show about upper-middle-class black Americans living their life, what is your role in bridging this divide that has been exposed in a bigger way? You say, yeah...

BARRIS: I think...

MARTIN: ...It's the reality all the time, but now it has been exposed to a larger degree, how this country breaks down along racial lines.

BARRIS: I've been doing some panels and things. And in those panels, the thing that I have really been stressing is send your kids to school where there are Asians and Latinos and blacks and whites and poor and rich because that is how people are able to actually grow in a world where they don't feel like the people that they're talking about are people that they don't really ever have any honest version of who that person is.

I think Donald Trump doesn't really know the people that he's talking about. They're just ideas to him. And I think my - you know, the thing that I hope, in our show, that it does is that it opens up the real conversations with people and lets people see our family as a real family. Not just as images or examples or ideas or things like that, but as real people. Even though they're on television, they can see themselves within that family and really have conversations that they may have been afraid or not wanted to have in public before.

MARTIN: So how do you get out of the echo chamber that you admit, to some degree, you're in, talking about the smugness of liberal elites and the need to kind of get out into the world and get in touch with people who don't think like you?

BARRIS: From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, I think my show changed. I think that, you know, all of us came in here today and we felt like, you know, we're in third season, you know, we've had some great episodes, you know, that I really was proud of. You know, we did a gun episode and hope and we did a voting episode. But this third season, we didn't want to become just a soapbox.

So we sort of calmed down and we were like, you know what? We have to talk about things that people might not want to talk about openly. But we have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear - have said. We have to do that more. We have a responsibility. It's not just TV for us anymore.

MARTIN: Do you feel any kind of new, perhaps uncomfortable, sense of responsibility to reach out to the half of America who voted for Donald Trump and get them - make them feel welcome in your show?

BARRIS: One hundred percent. I'm doing another pilot about a black Democratic pundit who's married to a white Republican pundit. And the purpose of me wanting to do that show, and ABC sort of supported me in the way they did, is because I feel like, you know, the political system is like an old married couple. And what's happened is the right is so dug into - on their side and the left is so dug in on their side that if either side concedes anything to the other, they feel like they're not being true to their side. And so they're not talking. No one - they're not communicating.

So I want to do a show about two people who, by walking down the aisle, across the aisle - and I do feel like it's - you know, I've been on my, you know, writers and we've been having back-and-forths because it's so quick for us to be like, they're crazy. They're nuts. And I'm like, no, they're - half the country is not crazy. There may be crazies out there, but it's condescending for us to say they're nuts and they're crazy and they're - does not open the conversation, does not make us a country more united by just saying that everything that they possibly feel is wrong. It's not. They just feel differently.

And we need to sort of open our conversation up to them to understand what they're feeling and so that maybe they'll open theirself (ph) up to us to understand what we're feeling 'cause ultimately, the right place of most arguments is the middle. Ultimately, we all want our kids to be OK, you know? And I feel like there's a conversation that we can all have together.

MARTIN: Kenya Barris is the creator, writer and producer of the ABC show "Black-ish." Kenya, thanks for talking with us.

BARRIS: Thank you, Rachel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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