‘#blackAF’ review: Kenya Barris goes from ‘Black-ish’ to ‘#blackAF’ with his messy Netflix debut


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Barris stars as a fictionalized Kenya Barris, the highly successful producer of “Black-ish,” with Rashida Jones as his wife, Joya. The framing device is that we meet and learn about the family through a documentary that his teenage daughter (Iman Benson) is producing, complete with her own crew as further evidence of how much the producer spoils his six kids.

It’s an approach that almost instantly manages to make the show feel derivative and artificial, especially during the “Modern Family”-esque direct-to-camera interviews, where participants (especially the parents) regularly say things that contradict their caught-on-tape actions.

It doesn’t help that the kids are a nondescript bunch, basically your average smart-alecky sitcom sextet. That’s a big part of why — despite Barris’ intentions do something irreverent and distinctive — the series comes up short on both counts.

The main preoccupation of “#blackAF” is the spiritual and intellectual challenge that being filthy rich poses, as Barris luxuriates in his opulent trappings and toys while constantly feeling required to reaffirm his identity. While the timing is nobody’s fault, that internal struggle can’t help but feel a trifle unfortunate at the current moment.

The season closes, for example, with a two-part episode in which Kenya and Joya squabble over what fabulous place they’ll go on vacation, with him attempting to one-up her — in order to win the argument — by chartering a private jet to Fiji.

There are, scattered along the way, a few funny moments. In one episode Barris intensely dislikes a movie by an African-American director that everyone else is praising, convening a de facto council of black filmmakers via video conference (including Lena Waithe and Issa Rae), only to spend most of the time insulting their work, and vice versa.

Part of Netflix’s appeal to talent is the ability to produce series with a deeply personal bent, catering to various segments of the subscriber base. without having to be all things to all people.

Barris, who at times chafed at restrictions imposed by ABC, clearly welcomed the freedom to undertake such an experiment — not only by casting himself as the star but by making the series, as he put it in a letter to critics, “unapologetically black.”

“I wanted this to be something bold, honest and unfiltered,” he wrote. “Something where I could take off all the straps and really hang out of the plane — even if it felt terrifying at times.”

Presented that way, the show is certainly a leap. Still, watching “#blackAF,” it was hard not think that if you could do pretty much anything, the first thing you wanted to make was this? #WTH?

“#blackAF” premieres April 17 on Netflix.

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