Promising an edgier sophomore season, Black-ish kicks off season 2 with the highly anticipated "n-word episode." Whether or not it sparks a national conversation about the historically divisive issue remains to be seen, but it certainly delivers on the laughs.
During a school talent show, Jack (Miles Brown)—aka "Party Time," the youngest of the Johnson boys—performs Kanye West's "Gold Digger," and when he raps along to the famous line, "Now, I ain't saying she a gold digger, but she ain't messing with no broke niggas," the predominantly white audience reacts with shock and extreme discomfort. Jack's snarky twin sister, Diane (Marsai Martin), quips, "I begged him to go with the radio edit."
As a result, Jack's parents, Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), must defend Jack from possible expulsion from school for using "the word" in a school that has a zero-tolerance policy regarding hateful speech (a policy that Bow drafted, by the way). But first they have to figure out where they stand on the issue.
For many fans of the show, Black-ish has consistently succeeded in plucking real arguments that many black families have over Thanksgiving dinner or at family reunions and expounding upon them on TV for our entertainment and amusement, and this episode, "The Word," is no exception.
First, the episode explores some familiar arguments. Dre defends the use of the word by black people as our birthright when he says, "Jewish kids get to go to Israel. Black kids get to say [the n-word]." Bow is against the use of the word by anyone, and Dre's white boss wants to know why he can cut a check to the United Negro College Fund but he can't refer to black people as "Negroes." No matter which camp you're in, whether the Paul Mooney school (saying the word "makes my teeth white"), the more nuanced "just not in mixed company" camp or team "never, ever," Black-ish has got you covered.
Then Black-ish hilariously delves into more convoluted territory when Dre's black co-workers try to explain to their white co-workers who should be able to say the word. They agree that white people shouldn't be able to say the word, but they illustrate (literally with markers on a white board) the absurdity of where to draw the line when they try to decide and explain which Latinos get a pass. Dominicans, but not Mexicans? Puerto Ricans like Rosie Perez, but not Jennifer Lopez? The episode presses further into the complexity of the issue when Dre discovers to his displeasure that many of his daughter's high school friends, regardless of race, regularly use the word.
It takes a masterly hand to approach this divisive topic with authenticity and delicacy while delivering belly laughs along the way, and thanks to crackerjack performances by Jenifer Lewis and Deon Cole, I hollered at least three times. For anyone hoping that Black-ish will tell you how to feel about the word, it won't, but it's certainly one of the most entertaining explorations of the issue you'll find on TV. It's definitely worth the watch.
Editor’s note: Black-ish premieres Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 9:30 p.m. ET on ABC.
Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.