Early in his career, Kenya Barris considered a path to directing. But after consideration, he decided to instead focus on writing and producing.
In a conversation Saturday evening during the American Black Film Festival, the creator of ABC’s Black-ish and the Netflix series #BlackAF shared the reasons behind his decision.
“I wanted to be a writer, wanted to be a director, but I figured out it was easier to write and cheaper to write than it was to direct. In TV, the writer’s the boss, so I kind of got on the path to writing,” Barris said during the virtual conversation.
Hosted by attorney and activist Angela Rye, the panel was titled A Conversation With Kenya Barris.
While many people now shoot web series on mobile phones and upload the video to YouTube or Instagram, Barris, 46, said things were different when he started out.
“Back in the day, video was kind of coming around, but generally people were still shooting film,” he explained. “You had to get it shot, you had to light the heck out of it, you had to get it processed.”
Barris said he just didn’t have the resources to direct.
“I was struggling. I was a p.a., my wife was pregnant at the time, in med school. I was stealing [bottled] waters at the time from the office,” he recalled. “As a director for me, it was cost — the cost efficiency wasn’t something that I felt was going to be effective for me to really make the kind of impact I wanted to make.”
Barris got his big break as a writer and consultant on America’s Next Top Model. He and co-creator Tyra Banks were good friends and came up with a concept for the show based on Banks’ experience as a supermodel. Barris said they were inspired by Sean “Puffy” Combs’ MTV reality series Making the Band.
“We both liked Making the Band, so we looked up the producer, this guy called Ken Mok. We told him, ‘people don’t know but there’s a process to being a model.’ He was like, ‘let’s use the same premise of Making the Band and go pitch a modeling show,'” Barris explained. “We pitched it and everybody made offers. It’s the fastest I’ve ever, in all the shows I’ve sold, from the time we pitched that to the time we were shooting, it was 26 days.”
Banks hosted and executive produced ANTM. It aired from 2003 to 2018 on UPN, The CW, and VH1.
“It ended up being something that I was super proud of,” Barris said, “but more importantly, it gave me the opportunity to say no to stuff and that is the key. When you have to say yes to everything, it makes your career path a little bit different.”
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Barris eventually decided to focus on writing and selling pilots. “I think I sold 18 or 19 pilots,” he said.
It was the pilot for Black-ish that changed everything. The series premiered on ABC in September 2014, and features an award-winning, ensemble cast that includes Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Jenifer Lewis and Laurence Fishburne.
Barris said it was Fishburne’s involvement that got ABC’s attention.
“Anthony wants to think it’s him, but it really was Laurence Fishburne that [helped],” Barris revealed. “We got Fish attached to play Pops, and you’d really never seen, Fish is an Oscar guy and Broadway guy, and you’d never seen someone like that play a comedy role. He and Anthony had such great chemistry between them and then Tracee came on.”
They knew they had something special on their hands.
“We could feel when we were making Black-ish, we were like ‘this is going too good,'” he said. “Larry Wilmore came on and supervised the pilot … and we thought, even if they don’t buy this, someone else will.” The rest is history.
ABFF runs from Aug. 21-Aug. 30.