Kenya Barriswatched as his name blasted across the media on an ordinarily calm Friday in October. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit edgier, a little more highbrow, a little headier, and I think Netflix wants down the middle. Netflix became CBS.”
The headlines weren’t about a new project he was writing or directing, though there were plenty of those; instead, the creator of Black-ish, #blackAF, and Girls Trip was considering leaving Netflix, and he was just halfway through his multiyear agreement. According to the swirl of rumors, his next move would be to invest in a studio partnership with ViacomCBS. The specifics were still sketchy, fueling the rumor mill and left many in Hollywood scratching their heads, wondering what had gone wrong.
“I think a lot of people thought I got fired or quit, like, ‘Fuck this,’” says Barris, speaking publicly for the first time about the move — but the truth was more complicated, as he revealed over a series of conversations that began with lunch at the members-only San Vicente Bungalows in early June.
The Netflix marriage had been rocky long before a racial reckoning forced the 46-year-old to reconsider his priorities. Barris refused to be the broadly commercial producer that Netflix wants, and Netflix was not interested in providing the edgy home that Barris desired. He’s not sure if his $100 million agreement would have been renewed if he had stayed, but it didn’t matter. By January, his representatives had untangled him from the costly alliance, just as they had with his Disney agreement a few years before, and hammered out a new deal that granted him ownership — about a third, according to Barris — and a seat on the board of BET Studios.
“In some ways, I’ll call this a diversity play,” adds Barris, recognizing that “it’s a special moment in this industry if you’re Black and you have something to say.” The idea, at least as he sees it, is to offer quality content from underrepresented voices to sites both inside and outside of ViacomCBS. Barris and the authors he helped recruit already have projects in the works for Hulu, Apple, Showtime, and Starz, to name a few. With his typical bombast, he declares, “I want to do in-your-face things.” “I want to sell to everyone — and I’m not saying you’re racist if you don’t want to deal with me, but other people might.”
Barris quietly added a record label with Interscope, as well as a book deal with Random House, a podcast partnership with Audible, and a first-look film deal with Paramount, seizing the moment and his growing cultural capital, to say nothing of his bulging Rolodex — 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 who is incredible, can we turn her narrative into a podcast, maintain the IP, and then go to Netflix and sell it as a documentary?” he asks, his wheels turning.
Barris has been busy hiring up (his Khalabo Ink Society currently employs over 40 workers), signing artists, and preparing his first book of essays, which he’ll most likely call This Is Basic Shit: Things We Know That You Don’t. “Kenya has a potential to make an effect and legacy that few even dare to think of,” says Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, with whom Barris still has a lot of business.
Netflix was supposed to be Barris’ saviour, and he was almost convinced it was in the summer of 2018.
The renowned producer had been at odds with his then-employer, ABC, over a particularly tense episode of his flagship show, Black-ish, titled “Please, Baby, Please,” which weaved events such as the NFL kneeling protests into a bedtime narrative. Barris opted to delete the episode rather than allowing a modified version to run during the Peabody-winning series‘ fourth season. Soon after, he requested to be released from his four-year contract, which he had signed only a year before.