“Black-ish” and “#blackAF” creator Kenya Barris wasn’t afraid to talk politics during his virtual panel at the American Black Film Festival, which launched Friday.
Barris, who left ABC Studios in 2018 for a lucrative deal at Netflix, says he’s focused on using his voice more than ever – and that includes successfully pushing Disney to release a formerly shelved “Black-ish” episode that touched on issues like Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality, President Trump and white supremacists.
“We just got our old episode of ‘Black-ish” put on Hulu and three years ago I (made) that and for whatever reason it was not OK then. But it was important for this to be seen. Three years ago we were talking about this. Three years ago these were concerns of ours,” Barris said during the Q&A, which was moderated by “One 1″ podcast host Angela Rye.
Never been to a film festival before? Thanks to COVID, they’re more accessible than ever
Speaking from his home, Barris, 46, said the current political climate and the Black Lives Matter movement dominate his attention.
“I think this is the only time in my life that I’ve actually had writer’s block. There’s so much going on right now. People are like, ‘You’re probably writing so much in the house.’ It’s such a challenging time,” said Barris, who is developing a Juneteenth musical with Pharrell Williams for Netflix and is the co-screenwriter of the upcoming “Coming to America 2” (the latter which he said is currently being edited).
Given his platform, Barris feels compelled to be a part of this moment. “And to not necessarily try to get checks. The creative part of me is sort of a little bit dull right now because I feel like we’re in a big fight and we need to, more than ever, come together, even if we disagree with one another, to figure out how we go forward.”
More: ABC hid this political ‘Black-ish’ episode in 2018, but it’s even more powerful in 2020
That includes addressing inequities around the upcoming election. “I’m now focused on making Election Day (a holiday),” said the television creator, writer and actor. “You want us as Black Americans to participate in your democracy, even though democracy doesn’t always participate in us. But you’re not going to at least let us have a day off, and we need our jobs more than most, to go and participate in your democracy? Why can Columbus Day be a holiday but … (not Election Day)?”
A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found bipartisan majority support for the idea: 71% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 59% of Republicans and GOP leaners said they would support making Election Day a national holiday.
USA TODAY investigation: What if Election Day were a holiday?
Barris continued: “Why can’t felons vote? They’ve paid their time, that you’ve given them probably unfairly. Why are they not allowed to participate in your democracy – because it might lean in a way that you don’t want it to lean? … Sometimes entertainment gives you a place to say that to people in a way they weren’t thinking. I’m really focused on that. I’m clear that that is something I want to do to use my voice.”
His advice to those seeking to diversify Hollywood? It matters who is behind the camera, in writers rooms and in executive suites.
‘We should and can do better’: Octavia Spencer urges Hollywood to cast more people with disabilities
“I tell all my friends who are white showrunners, ‘Look, just make sure that (your) world looks like the world when you’re putting your (writers room) together. (‘Friends’ co-creator) Marta Kauffman I consider a friend; she recently spoke out (about the show’s lack of diversity) and said ‘I wish I had done it differently.’ Because I always used to say, what part of New York is ‘Friends’ filmed in? There’s not even a Puerto Rican?” Barris said.
More: David Schwimmer says he pushed for diversity on ‘Friends’
“But they had no impetus to make that world for themselves. So I think it’s important for us when we create our worlds to … make sure that it looks like a world that we feel is similar to something we want people to see.”
Barris’ ABFF panel appeared to have been filmed prior to Sen. Kamala Harris joining Joe Biden on the Democratic ticket, as he voiced his hope for a Black female as the vice presidential candidate.
“Would Joe Biden be my candidate that I would have necessarily chosen? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I definitely want Trump out,” he said. “And I feel like in this current political system that’s we are in, it’s a two-party system, and right now that’s who we have. It’s our job to make sure that we‘re not going to just hand it over to him … This is our time to really make sure our voice is really heard in the Democratic Party.”
ABFF will run through Aug. 30 and is streaming more than 90 films celebrating Black cinema, as well as panel discussions featuring Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, “Candyman” director Nia DaCosta, Mary J. Blige, Lena Waithe and Gabrielle Union.