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Top 5 Screenwriting Tips from black-ish Creator Kenya Barris

By February 4, 2021April 29th, 2021No Comments

Kenya Barris

February is Black History Month, and while it’s an opportunity to showcase Black creators, it’s not the only time we should be celebrating them. We should always be honoring and recognizing the Black community and amplifying their work.

I recently did a deep dive online into the many interviews that BLACK-ISH creator Kenya Barris has done over the years, and I found a number of inspiring recurring themes.

Some of these may seem like the typical advice given to screenwriters, but there is something about the way Barris delivers these golden nuggets that landed differently for me.

Here are my top takeaways:

Embrace the “Pigeonhole”

Don’t shy away from what makes you, you. 

While it’s exciting to write about things outside of your own life story, oftentimes the strength of leaning into your unique personal experience will set your writing apart. Embrace it, be vulnerable and share your personal journey.

As Barris stated in a THR Roundtable interview, “I took the pigeonholing for me, and embraced it…when you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. I am the black guy and I’m not going to wear a blazer today…I have to be the most honest version of who I am.”

Just Start Typing 

Don’t be intimidated by the logistics of how your idea will go from script to screen.  The most important thing is to just start getting your thoughts out. 

Writing is the most direct route to getting your story out into the world and as I discovered in a recent article, Barris’ decision to focus on writing and producing rather than directing proved to be the jumping-off point for his career. 

In the panel “A Conversation with Kenya Barris”, he shared that he “wanted to be a writer, wanted to be a director, but [he] figured out it was easier to write, and cheaper to write than it was to direct. In TV, the writer’s the boss, so [he] kind of got on the path to writing.” 

There is power in the stroke of the key or a pen to the page. When you don’t have enough money to fully realize a project, just start typing.

Write the Familiar

When you “embrace the pigeonhole” and lean into your personal experiences, you’ll most likely find a wealth of stories, characters, and situations to pull from.

As Barris stated in an interview talking about the inspiration for BLACK-ISH, “the family in BLACK-ISH reminds me of my family mainly because it’s based directly on my family. My wife is a doctor, a mixed-race doctor, we have five kids. We sort of pulled ourselves up, bootstrapped ourselves up in a way, and the world that we see them growing up in is a lot different than the world that we remember.”

He goes on to talk about how their experience of “quote-unquote ‘being black’ was…completely different than mine. They were a little bit of a filtered down version of my ideology of what being black was from when I was growing up, so they were sort of black-ish.”

Have “a Voice” 

When Barris was interviewed by Issa Rae he mentioned that in watching her premiere he got jealous because he heard “a voice”, and “that’s the best thing any writer can have is a voice.”

He went on to explain, “For so long, we could walk into Woody Allen movies fifteen minutes late and we’re like, ‘oh I know this is a Woody Allen movie’. You could walk into a Cameron Crowe movie and be like, ‘is this a Cameron Crowe movie?’ I feel like now I can walk into an Issa Rae television show and be like, ‘did Issa Rae write this?’ and I feel like that’s what I’m missing… we need to have more people that have voices that we can say, this is a voice… that goes back from Hemmingway, Faulkner, whoever. They have voices and you can pick up their things, and you can hear their voice.” 

So, take time to find that authentic voice. Lean into the way that you personally see the world and reflect that back through your writing, and to make it even stronger, add in a bit of this last tip… 

“To Shine a Diamond You Have to Scratch it First”

Barris also talked with Issa Rae about not shying away from difficult past experiences or running away from who you are. 

Every person is flawed and has been through more than we would ever know from the outside, and for Barris it’s those things that truly made him who he is. 

He said, “To shine a diamond, you have to scratch it first…that’s sort of what we have to, as writers, be…people who are willing to…take everything that we are and make it who we are gonna be.”

So, welcome those scratches and shine your diamond, embrace your pigeonhole, and write what’s familiar. Along the way, your authentic voice will inevitably burst through.

Happy writing!

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Helenna Santos is an actor, writer, producer, and was the founder/editor-in-chief of Ms. In The Biz for its seven-year run. As an actor, she has been seen most recently in CW’s THE FLASH, ABC’s A MILLION LITTLE THINGS, and THE GOOD DOCTOR as well as THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB on Netflix. Helenna produced and starred in the female-driven sci-fi/thriller feature film The Shasta Triangle and the adventure movie At Your Own Risk. Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Backstage Magazine, IndieWire, Film Inquiry, and BUST Magazine, and she can often be found on panels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con.  Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter!

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