In what’s been called the “Golden Age of TV,” black-ish is a 24-karat comedy.
It features brilliant actors Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson, and Laurence Fishburne, among others.
And it’s groundbreaking.
In its fifth season on ABC on Wednesday nights, the show featuring a successful African-American family living in suburban Southern California has dealt with powder keg issues such as police brutality, bi-racial relationships, and the n-word, all while busting up viewers.
“Comedy is a good way to give people a spoonful of sugar with their medicine,” said Kenya Barris, the show’s creator.
Beneath the comedy are serious ideas.
“We are a society which talks less about race than ever—at least openly—because of political correctness, and this has made the situation worse,” Barris said.
Black-ish has been nominated for eight Emmy Awards and four Golden Globe Awards. Earlier this year, the show won an award at the NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series. Ross won for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series, and Anderson was named Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series.
In 2017, Ross (Bow, or Dr. Johnson on the show) became the first
black woman in more than three decades to win the Golden Globes’ best actress in a TV comedy or musical (the last was Debbie Allen for Fame in 1983). The daughter of Diana Ross says she revels in portraying a thriving wife, mother, and doctor.
“I think that as a black woman, my beingness is a form of activism in and of itself,” Ross said. “If I take that and ripple it out further in an amplified way, I can’t help, from my beingness, to not be a form of activism, because that is who I am.”
Bow’s husband is advertising executive Dre (Anderson), who considers himself the patriarch of the family, but struggles with the changes taking place in society, and worries that his kids aren’t experiencing blackness in the same way he has.
Bow and Dre’s children are the quietly shrewd Zoey (Yara Shahidi), the conscientious Junior (Marcus Scribner), the volcanic Diane (Marsai Martin), the sweet and often confused Jack (Miles Brown), and baby DeVante. Alicia (Anna Deavere Smith) is Bow’s woo-woo mother, and Jonah (David Diggs) is her intellectual, often-annoying brother.
Pops (Fishburne) is Dre’s no-nonsense father with a bit of a checkered past. Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) is his loose cannon mother, and Rhonda (Raven Symone) is his gay sister whose wit and wisdom make her a show-stealer, even though she’s a no-drama woman.
Ask fans of black-ish about their favorite episode, and fiery debates will ensue. It’s impossible to name the best or most important single show, but here are a handful that fans—including former President Barack Obama, who has said it’s his favorite TV sitcom—would probably mention:
—When the kids ask some tough questions about a highly publicized court case involving accusations of police brutality upon a black teenager, Dre and Bow are torn over how to field them. Dre, along with Pops and Ruby, feel the kids need to know what kind of world they’re living in, while Bow is determined to give them a rosier view. In one of the show’s most dramatic moments, Dre—recalling how proud and hopeful he and Bow were when Obama was elected president and how terrified they were that he’d get assassinated on his inauguration day—convinces Bow that the kids should not be blindfolded to reality.
—After Dre notices that his neighbor Janine has never invited his family to any of her pool parties, he assumes she is racially stereotyping them. The kids are shocked to find out that, guess what? Dre doesn’t know how to swim.
—Jack performs the Kanye West song “Gold Digger” at a school talent show and when he sings a lyric that includes the n-word, it leads to his possible expulsion from school. Dre and Bow work together to keep him in school, and along the way, examine the evolution of the word and grapple with just who has the right to use it and whether it should be said at all.
The n-word episode is probably the most pot-stirring single airing in the show’s five-year history.
Anderson said it’s important to talk about the word, as well as other
issues that affect black families, even if it’s uncomfortable or painful.
“We leave it up to the public to enjoy it or debate,” he said. “But there’s no trepidation at all because we come from an authentic place, and that’s why we can dance the dance that we do in terms of the subject matters that we deal with. When you come at it from a real place and you’re authentic to who you are, who these characters are and what the dynamic of this family is, you can do just about do anything and have it resonate with someone. And that’s what we do.”
When the show debuted in fall 2014 (Larry Wilmore was the showrunner at the time), many were confused about the title.
Fishburne, who was instrumental in getting black-ish aired on ABC, explains it as well, or better, than anyone.
“Here’s the thing about our title,” said Fishburne, who Silver Screen cognoscenti surely remember from Boyz in the Hood, Othello, Tuskagee Airmen, What’s Love Got to Do with It, and The Matrix. “Our title is a little bit of a wink. It’s a bit of a joke because, ultimately, if you live in America and you’ve been in America, let’s say, for the last 10, 15, 20 years, you’re probably a little blackish anyway. So that’s what’s wonderful about our title, and that’s really what it means. Everybody’s a little Jewish. Everybody’s a little blackish, you know?”
Want a simpler breakdown?
Black-ish is not the first TV comedy featuring African-American stars or the first to deal with race issues.
It’s not even the only one on TV. Empire comes to mind.
What makes the show different than, say, The Cosby Show, to name an obvious predecessor, Barris said, is that The Cosby Show was about a thriving family who happened to be black. That was groundbreaking in its time. Black-ish is about a thriving family dealing with their blackness in an ever-changing, sometimes confusing world.
The Johnsons don’t happen to be black; their blackness is integral to who they are and how they navigate through and negotiate with society. It’s not necessarily the epicenter of every show, but it’s ever-present.
And unlike Empire, a fine show in its own right, the Johnsons are not moguls in the business of hip-hop. When Bow and Dre go to work, when Zoey and the other kids go to school, they’re socializing—and competing—with people of all ethnicities, including a large number of Caucasian folks. This forces the show and its viewers to confront uncomfortable issues rooted in this nation’s history.
That’s medicine for Americans.
While we enjoy a spoonful of sugar with it.