If 2013 was all about “cultural appropriation”—the Grammys, Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” Billboard’s color vacancy, that damn twerk—then 2014 might just be all about “policing” bodies, respectability … and blackness.
Everywhere you look, there are guidelines being open-source administered by all but unfortunately adhered to only by few. So maybe it makes sense that this would be the year TV diversifies more than ever and brings the first nearly all-black family sitcom to a network in years with ABC’s Black-ish.
Yep, that’s the title. It might make a few folks wince, but dip it low, bring it up slow, roll it all around and then give the show a chance; it’s pretty good.
With contributions from Emmy-winning comedy writer Larry Wilmore—who co-created The PJs and produced on The Bernie Mac Show before becoming a Colbert Report mainstay on Comedy Central—and creator Kenya Barris of The Game and Are We There Yet? fame, Black-ish follows Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), an upper-middle-class dad trying to maintain a sense of cultural identity between his liberal doctor wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), and their “post-racial” kids.
There’s the awkward, racially oblivious high school freshman Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner), deadpan teen Zoey (Yara Shahidi), brilliant tyke Diane (Marsai Martin) and the adorable, slightly younger Jack (Miles Brown), all co-existing with Pops, Andre’s dad, played by Laurence Fishburne.
The Cosby Show comparisons are already out in abundance, but while the Huxtables sometimes existed in a type of postcard-perfect Shangri-La, Black-ish tries to come right at the tensions of being black in the ’burbs.
Sort of: It “has much less to do with race than culture,” Barris explains. “The show is about a black family—not about a family that happens to be black.”
And in its pilot, Black-ish looks to address the potential for cultural erasure that confronts black families living in suburban America today: “I want my family to be black, not black-ish,” Andre tells his crew at a family meeting. Whether it’s Andre Jr. wanting to be called Andy (“That’s not even close to Andre!”) and trying out for the field hockey team (read: not basketball), or little Jack not knowing Barack Obama as the first black president, the red flags are everywhere. Dad’s worried that his bunch are losing their blackness.
But then, at work, it’s the inverse problem: Instead of a promotion to senior vice president, somehow Andre gets the title of senior vice president of the urban division, prompting the funny but uncomfortable reaction, “Did they just put me in charge of the black stuff?”
On this show, we get to laugh at the scenarios that might make us cry in real life.
The hidden gems, though—the ones that illustrate the “traditional vs. progressive” tug—lie in the exchanges between Andre and Pops. Pops is all good with his son’s corporate status and the upper-middle-class lifestyle that he provides, but responds to Andre’s professional-title dilemma by offering this alternative: “head puppet of the white man.” It’s the type of line that’s both familiar and telling.
Which isn’t to say that the show doesn’t overdo it at times. We really don’t need to see Andre walking into his workplace, high-fiving the janitor and lobby attendant, to figure out that he’s the black guy who made it, George Jefferson-style. Memo to Black-ish writers: We get it.
But in the end, it’s all about straddling lines. First and foremost, Black-ish is a sitcom, so look elsewhere if you’re looking for gritty commentary on race in America—this show is about the funny. But there’s promise here. The trick will be for Barris (without Wilmore, who recently vacated production duties as he prepares for his own show premiering on Comedy Central next year) to find a way to tackle cultural issues while still having crossover appeal.
Sort of the same dilemma the show’s characters have.
If Black-ish can somehow manage to juggle the sometimes uncomfortable nature of race—er, culture—in a matter-of-fact way, the showrunners may have stumbled on a successful formula.
“How did you keep it real with us?” Andre asks Pops, looking for guidance on how to navigate his own family.
“I didn’t,” Pops says. “I kept it honest.”
Black-ish premieres tonight at 9:30 p.m. EDT/PDT.
Aaron Randle is a Howard-bred writer living in Kansas City, Mo.