TV Review: Black-ish

Black-ish is a situation comedy currently being aired by ABC.  It stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross.  It is about an upper-middle class black family, the Johnsons, who live in a predominantly white neighborhood.  Black-ish uses humor to make serious points, such as conveying the inequalities of our society from the vantage point of a black/biracial family.  In reviewing this show, I decided to focus on one of its best episodes, “Hope,” which was first broadcast on February 23, 2016.

“Hope” is about the conversation that every black family has had, and if not, should have with their children.  It addresses police brutality and the multiple deaths of black people at the hands of the police.  The episode begins with a video collage of sped-up footage and still photographs of people going about their life in different parts of the world, during different periods of time. The footage also depicts images throughout history such as man’s first walk on the moon, tragic fires, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and JFK and Jackie on that fateful day in Texas. The narrator talks about the images, how they evoked curiosity in children, leading to question parents sometimes don’t know how to answer. In the background, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” is playing.

The scene then turns to the Johnson family:  the parents Dre (Anderson) and Bow (Ross), paternal grandparents, teenage daughter and son, all surrounding the television, waiting to learn if the white officer involved in the killing of an unarmed black teen will be indicted. While the family awaits the verdict, conversation ensues about the numerous police shootings of black citizens that have taken place throughout the US. The family’s attempt to keep the details of the many shootings straight brilliantly highlights the volume of shootings that have recently occurred across America. Dre and his parents have harbored life-long distrust of the police, and are not surprised. It is mentioned that “violence and police brutality is not new, just the cameras,” referring to the prevalence of cell phone cameras now available to document these incidents.

Dre refers to all police as thugs, while Bow quickly states that not all police are bad. The parents cannot agree on how much of what is happening in the case should be exposed to their preteen twins Jack and Diane. Dre believes that “black children need to see the world as it is,” while Bow thinks her twins are too young to be witness the harsh realities of the world. The twins eventually join the rest of the family in front of the television while awaiting the court’s decision, and they become a part of the discussion.

“Hope” does a phenomenal job of addressing a multitude of topics faced by the black family and the black community. The range of emotions and opinions among the Johnson family members accurately represents the conflicting feelings in many black families; there’s a distrust of the system, optimism that the system will work with time, fear that things will only get worse.  But there is also hope, along with apprehension that the hope will be taken away for future generations. Through lighthearted comedy, the characters in this episode address the discourse between the police and the black community throughout the three generations represented in the Johnson family.  In the midst of the discussion, the dialogue tackles the protocol for what to do when pulled over by the police, and how to talk with children about the realities of being black in America.  The story line also mentions prominent scholars and civil rights activists from the past and the present.

I thought the script was very effective in showing not only the flaws of our legal system and the injustices of systemic racism, but also using statistics to demonstrate that the system does work, more often than not.  The characters in Black-ish are realistic in wanting to believe in the system, but also in having doubts.   For example, Bow believes that sometimes the law works the way it should. She is an advocate for giving the system time and trusting that things will work. Her optimism is her way of keeping hope alive.  Dre discusses the hope the black community had when President Obama was elected. He describes inauguration day when the president emerged from the limo and waved to the crowd. But Dre talks about the terror he felt that someone would snatch the hope away from the black community by assassinating the president, just because of the color of his skin. As Dre describes his feelings on that day, footage of the president and first lady plays; as he speaks, you can see the actors’ eyes fill with tears. As Dre tells this story to illustrate his point, I realize that my thought on that very same day was the same as the actor was describing. I remember watching with my husband and son and as the president arose from the car, and I remember being afraid for his life, afraid that he could be killed any moment.  I could not help but wonder how many black Americans had the same thought on that day.

Black-ish is a show that is worth watching.  It provides an excellent platform to address issues that matter in our society. “Hope” is an episode that is especially relevant to the black community, but I believe it is an important episode for people of all races to see.  For one to understand the path of an individual, it is important to learn about that person’s experiences. It is hard to sympathize with others if you don’t know their reality, and Black-ish provides that opportunity.  This is a show that is not afraid to take on the controversial topics; but the writers do it in a way that is not overwhelming, and they know when to use humor to defuse a tense conversation.  Thus, it is not surprising to me that Black-ish has gotten good reviews from other critics; in fact, I can give it a good review too.

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