When Anthony Anderson (The Shield) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) met a few years back, they got to talking about how different their kids’ lives were from their own childhoods. As Anderson puts it, “Kenya made a comment like, ‘You know, I feel like I went from raising a black family to a black-ish family.’” Thus, Anderson says, the ABC hit show Black-ish was born.
Now heading into its fourth season, the show follows Andre Johnson (Anderson) and his family, and explores serious societal issues with a smart dose of humor. Co-starring Trace Ellis Ross, Wanda Sykes, and Laurence Fishburne, it recently spawned a spin-off, College-ish, for breakout star Yara Shahidi. This year sees Anderson’s third consecutive Emmy nom for Black-ish, a situation he calls “truly a humbling experience.”
Black-ish was partly inspired by your life in some ways, right?
Yeah. Not only my life, but also Kenya Barris’ who created the show. We sat down a little more than five years ago now, and we were managed by the same manager, but we had never met. We just talked about the landscape of television and what was missing for us as viewers, how we watch television and what we watched as teenagers, as young men growing up, and how those shows were no longer around, or those types of shows. Those shows were All in the Family, they were Good Times, they were The Jeffersons, and things like that. And we said, “That’s what’s missing for us.”
We wanted to create something like that, or have a show in the vein of those shows. We started getting to know one another and realized that we had more in common than we didn’t. Kenya’s from Inglewood, California, I’m from Compton, California, and both of us are first-generation successful. Both of us are the only African American families living in our respective neighborhoods. All of our children are in private school. Dealing with the trappings of our success and the effect that it has had on our lives, individually and personally, and our children as well , now we’re able to provide for our family and get our children a different—I don’t want to say “better”–but a different childhood than what we had growing up in the inner city in Los Angeles, and all of the things that come along with that.
For a while, not only was my son the only chocolate drop in his class: He was the only chocolate drop in his grade for more than four years. So dealing with issues like that, assimilating and trying to hold on to his character and who he is as a young black man in this world, and in this newfound world of suburbia and privilege. And Kenya was going through the same thing with his children. Our meeting lasted a couple of hours, and a couple weeks later Kenya called me up and said, “I got our show.” And here we are, five years later, sitting here talking about it.
I read that your son came home from school and said, “I don’t feel black and I want a Bar Mitzvah.” How did you talk to him about making the show?
That was about the time that we were making the show. He was thirteen and I threw him a Bro Mitzvah, not a Bar Mitzvah, and really didn’t discuss with him or the family about what we were doing. I was like, “Yo, Kenya and I have this great idea about a show, and we’re going out to pitch,” but I never sat down with my son in particular or the family and talked about it in great detail. We were just like, “Yo, this is what we’re gonna do. It’s just gonna be about our experiences,” and that was it. We talked about his whole Bro Mitzvah experience, and that was our pilot, coupled with a bunch of other things. When he saw it, he was like, “Oh, yo!” Because we really lifted everything that he and I talked about, and what we did for the party.
When you left college, your dad brought the hammer down. He said, “Get a job.” Under that level of pressure, you chose acting—you must have really wanted to do it.
Well, you know, my dad is—was, may he rest in peace—a very practical man. I can go out on a limb and probably say he wasn’t really a dreamer the way I was a dreamer. My dad grew up the youngest of 16 in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the farm. He always had to work, and work with his hands, and his work was backbreaking labor, so that’s what he equated work with. He came to Los Angeles and worked in the steel mills, and pulled himself up by his bootstraps and eventually became a successful businessman, owning three clothing stores in the inner city. My father wanted me to come work for him. It’s not that he wanted me to go out and get a job—he wanted me to come work for him. And I knew, as an employee of his, I was not gonna be paid. So that’s why I was like, “Nah, man. This isn’t in my plans.”
And why acting?
This is something that I chose at nine. I realized at nine years old that this was what my energy was created to do, this is why I was placed on this Earth, and I was blessed with a gift. I remember getting into an argument with my father because we were talking about jobs and and I said, “I’m an actor,” and he said, “Really? You’re an actor?” He picked up the remote control and turned on the television, and he just started flipping through the channels, and he would stop on certain people and he would be like, “He’s an actor.” Flip the channel, “She’s an actor.” Flip the channel, Lassie was on. He said, “That dog’s an actor! Where are you acting?” And he shut me down. I had to swallow my pride. Then, I went and got the job at the Lakewood Mall.
Black-ish approaches contentious issues. You’ve even attracted some comment from President Trump. Have there been moments in the show where you wanted to push it further or the opposite, moments where it gave you pause?
When we sat down years ago, we said, “We want to push the envelope. When our show airs, whatever night of the week it is, the next day we want to be water cooler conversation. We want people to be talking about us on their lunch breaks, their coffee breaks, their smoke breaks, saying ‘Did you see what happened on Black-ish last night?’” We’ve always wanted to be the catalyst that sparked that conversation that eventually would help create change.
These are human stories. They just happen to be told from an African American perspective, but when people see our show and they see these characters, and they see our family, they see their family. They see themselves.
What can you say about the new season coming out this Fall?
We have a new baby and we have one of the birds leaving the nest. This first episode that we’re in the process of filming right now, Andre’s character is upset that Juneteenth isn’t a recognized holiday. His whole thing is, “We don’t have anything that celebrates the end of slavery,” and that is such a huge deal to him. He’s like, “This is something that should be recognized.” He goes all out in this particular episode. And hopefully with this episode, maybe this can be a recognizable holiday.
You look at America and how it was built, and the wealth that this country has, and it was made possible by slaves and indentured servants. And that’s not just African American people. It goes to the indigenous people of this country, the Indians and my Latino brothers and sisters. The wealth of this country was built on their backs. Dealing with that subject on this show hopefully sparks that conversation and that debate on both sides of the fence. That’s all that we’ve ever wanted to do, was to bring a group of people together who had different ideas, and bring them together to the table and have a conversation, and hopefully at the end of that conversation, they have a better understanding of one another than what they did when they walked in. That’s all that we can hope for.