The legacy of ABC's 'Black-ish': Presenting a Black TV family that isn't a monolith
As ABC's groundbreaking sitcom Black-ish leaves the air tonight — after eight seasons, 174 episodes, two spin offs and a raft of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations – it's easy to bask in the glow of a venerated series taking one last victory lap.
But this milestone also brings to mind an incident I witnessed during the show's early days, when people who might normally champion the series still weren't quite sure what to make of its bold, irreverent examinations of culture and race.
Black-ish helped rewrite the rules for how TV comedies talked about race, culture and families of color, daring to walk that tightrope just as some television networks were trying to get serious about showing diversity onscreen.
Back in early 2015, I was seated at a charity event next to venerated White House reporter April D. Ryan, when Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and star Anthony Anderson stopped by her table, asking playfully if she had seen the series yet. She admitted she hadn't – in part — because she wasn't sure what to make of the show's name.
This was something I had heard before from other people of color. They were afraid, without having actually seen the show, that the name Black-ish was some white TV producer's awkward joke – a fumbling attempt to look hip by someone who didn't understand Black culture or Black people. ("What kind of ish is this?" more than a few people asked me, back then.)
Barris and Anderson handled the situation well, joking with Ryan while assuring her that the name came from talented Black folks who had created a new kind of TV family. But I could also tell they had heard such trepidation before – not a great sign for a new series struggling to prove it could be a great companion to ABC's hit sitcom Modern Family.
Black-ish helped rewrite the rules for how TV comedies talked about race, culture and families of color; daring to walk that tightrope just as some television networks were trying to get serious about showing diversity onscreen. And it wasn't always an easy path, especially when Black audiences weren't quite sure if they were ready to trust TV producers to get their culture right.
The difference between Black and Black-ish
Anderson's character — put-upon, upper middle class dad Andre "Dre" Johnson – delivered the show's mission statement in 2014, during the very first episode. "Sometimes I worry that in an effort to make it, Black folks have dropped a little bit of their culture and the rest of the world has picked it up," he fretted.
"Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke are R&B gods. Kim Kardashian is the symbol for big butts. And Asian guys are just unholdable on the dance floor. Come on!"
What Dre was really describing, of course, was a collision of culture that marked the modern moment – a social landscape way different than the terrain navigated by, say, the Huxtables — the popular, upper middle class Black family who deftly reflected respectability politics and avoided such issues on The Cosby Show.
This was a world where Dre's oldest son played field hockey and his oldest daughter thought nothing of her white friends using the n-word. It's also a world where Dre's sneaker collection was better than his sons' and he was constantly worried that his streetwise, too-cool-for-school father would see him as a wealthy sellout.
In other words, it was a place where Blackness wasn't set in stone. The show's characters could display a fuller range of Black attitudes and ideas within one family, because they were all navigating the waves of an increasingly multicultural society in different ways.
Television, particularly on the broadcast networks, often struggled to depict how race can sometimes be the most important thing for a person of color, and at other times, move to the background. In Black-ish, ABC had a sitcom which put that idea in the title.
It was also a network TV-friendly version of the life led by Barris – a former writer for shows like Soul Food and The Game who also developed the unscripted series America's Next Top Model with model Tyra Banks. Like Dre, Barris' wife Rainbow was a biracial anesthesiologist; and like their small screen counterparts, the two are parents who have had their ups and downs as a couple.
Before Black-ish debuted, I had heard about other celebrities of color pitching TV comedies about the pitfalls of raising kids who were more privileged than they were growing up.
Black-ish took that concept further – often showing that Dre's rigid ideas about race and class lines could be downright outmoded in a country that had re-elected its first Black president and imported so much of its pop culture directly from African American life. But just when that vision got too comfortable, the show would take a close look at police brutality or Donald Trump-inspired racism to show how little some things had changed, after all.
By the end of the first episode, Dre had come to terms with his oldest son's wish for a Bar Mitzvah by throwing him a Hip Hop Bro-Mitzvah – based on something Anderson himself did for his son – trying to find a way to acknowledge his Black heritage while allowing him to reach for something new.
And, of course, no one misunderstood what the show was aiming for as badly as the guy who would get elected president after Barack Obama, Donald Trump, who tweeted in October 2014: "How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled "Blackish"? Can you imagine the furor of a show, "Whiteish"! Racism at highest level?"
Just trying to figure how that made sense to him still makes my brain hurt.
Taking big swings to make major points
One of the most entertaining things about Black-ish was the way the show could take big swings to chase a concept.
In the second season, the show tackled the n-word, when youngest son Jack (Miles Brown) said the epithet while performing a Kanye West song at a school assembly. His earnest mistake kicked off an episode-long discussion that ranged from Dre consulting his knuckleheaded co-workers about rules for using the word to a showdown with the school board that emphasized how Black folks need space to decide for themselves how to handle such an incendiary term.
There was "Good-ish Times," the episode formatted as a homage to the classic '70s sitcom Good Times (Dre has a dream where they're all characters on the show). For its 100th episode, "Purple Rain" offered a half-hour tribute to Prince, featuring the family dressed as different iterations of the Purple One after the youngest kids admitted they didn't know who he was. "Hope" featured the family talking about police brutality while watching news coverage of an officer accused of assaulting a young, unarmed Black man.
All of this was supported by an ace cast, including Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow, Yara Shahidi (now on the spinoff series Grown-ish) as their oldest daughter Zoey, Marcus Scribner's brilliant blerdisms as Andre Junior, with Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis as Dre's cantankerous parents. My special shoutout is reserved for the youngest actors playing Johnsons, Miles Brown as Jack and Marsai Martin as Diane – their cute-yet-savvy performances elevated the show from its earliest days.
Didn't hurt that they had hall-of-fame-level performers in supporting and recurring roles too, including Deon Cole, Wanda Sykes, Anna Deavere Smith, Daveed Diggs, Rashida Jones and Beau Bridges.
Tough as it is to remember now, Black-ish came along where there still weren't many series on network TV focused on families of color. It was part of a small insurgency developed by then-ABC president Paul Lee that included another groundbreaking series, the Asian-American-centered Fresh Off the Boat, aimed at reflecting the nation's diversity in a way the networks hadn't managed yet.
Black-ish hasn't always hit the mark. Its multiple-episode arc centered on the splintering of Dre and Rainbow's marriage felt particularly off; their brutal fights seemed more like an excuse to stretch the stars' acting chops than anything else. Spinoffs like Grown-ish on Freeform and ABC's short-lived flashback to Rainbow's childhood, Mixed-ish, somehow never gained the same momentum as the mothership show.
And when audiences in 2020 finally got to see a Black-ish episode yanked by ABC two years before – it featured tough criticism of Trump and a discussion inspired by then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem – it wasn't clear why the network originally declined to air a program offering exactly the kind of commentary the show always featured.
Still, Black-ish developed a style of talking directly about issues affecting people of color in ways that acknowledged we are not monoliths, while recalling and celebrating the elements of the culture which draw us all together.
As showbiz legacies go, that's not a bad one. Particularly, for a show too often taken for granted, as later series walked through the doors Black-ish kicked wide open.
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