This Wednesday (Sept. 24), ABC Family premiered the pilot episode for”Black-ish”, starring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Lawrence Fishburne. The show details a (upper) middle class Black family and their struggles in navigating complicated issues of race, class, post-raciality, and the everyday life of a nuclear family. If you haven’t checked out the show yet, please do, because there are spoilers within this article. These are my thoughts, opinions, and takeaways from viewing the first episode.
Overall, there were funny moments, but some were really awkward. The opening scene with the Hollywood tour driving by to see the “mythical and majestic” Black nuclear family in a “nice” neighborhood seemed too similar to a safari, to the point where offense would be as much of an appropriate reaction as laughter. Many jokes were spelled out for the viewer. Pilots usually do to this to set the tone of the plotline, themes, and characters of the show. But in this case, it seemed way too much like an appeal to non-Black people’s lack of (or superficial) knowledge of Black culture. This takes away some of the irony that would make the punchlines funny (or funnier) to Black audiences. I could hear non-Black viewers laughing hysterically on their couches, exclaiming “It’s funny, you know…cause he’s BLACK!”
The “Keeping It Real” trope was somewhat overplayed. I would bet big in Vegas that there isn’t one middle class Black professional in America who would risk being fired from a lucrative corporate job to make a point to their racially insensitive boss the way Andre did. The stability of his family would have been more important than “Keeping It Real”. Also, when Andre demanded that his kids describe people by their race, my first reaction was ambivalence. The probably more realistic action would be Andre explaining they shouldn’t make fun of any kid who wear the same clothes often (an indicator of lower class than them) and especially not Liza Jackson. It would have been important to him to instill some sense of Black solidarity between his kids and the only other Black kid in their class, not to order them to identifying others by “Keeping It Real Identifications”.
The show attempted to complicate issues of race, post-raciality, and solidarity versus individual forms of Blackness (Andre and his wife Rainbow disagree on certain issues of “blackness”, but still love and support each other). However, they made reactions to some of the very real dilemmas in a Black families’ life look “irrational”. That is what I’m most at odds with. Moving towards a post-racial society isn’t about not seeing race, it’s about addressing it despite how frustrated or uncomfortable it makes you feel. It’s counterintuitive, but so is the idea that we can enjoy a rainbow better if we were colorblind. Lastly, choosing the name “Rainbow” for Ross’ character may be a metaphor for her bi-raciality, which is ironic, since she is the more “colorblind” of the two. Rainbow is more invested in realism when it comes to issues about race, but seems unrealistically unoffended when her husband calls her “not really Black”.
Andre’s appointment to the SVP of the Urban Division is the central conflict in the episode. This conundrum is very emblematic of the hurdles Blacks in corporate America encounter. Being in charge of Black Stuff is a condescending promotion, and ultimately impotent in influencing change, since Andre alters his LA Tourism presentation to appease the white majority of his office and their clients (like most other Black folk would have done in his situation). Rainbow urges him “You’re mad that you got the job because you’re Black, but would be mad if someone else got the job who wasn’t Black.” Andre admits the grey area in this dilemma, and stomachs his objections in hopes it will pay off for the greater good, socially and monetarily speaking (making it to the “Them” side. More Wine!). I also liked the scene where the younger children admit they didn’t know Barack Obama was the first Black president, because Obama was the only president they ever known. Great way to portray the generational gap in Black consciousness and the new generation of kids who will inherit color-blindness (its benefits and detriments).
Lawrence Fishbourne’s character is a great redeeming part of show. Though his character has the amusing political incorrectness of an old man, many of his statements were subtle and profound. My favorite two parts of the pilot were when Andre asked Pops how did he “keep it real all those years?”, to which Pops replied “I didn’t, I kept it honest”. Historically, Black parents teach their kids how to survive despite and in spite of racism and historical inequality. The second profound but subtle scene was when Andre performed the “African rites of passage” on his son. Andre Jr. asks “Can I go?” and Andre replied “No! Stand right there and experience your roots”. Pops timely interjects “You’re better off watching Roots”. In today’s “post-racial” climate, the only place many Black kids learn about the ills of slavery is at home. It is a glossed over subject throughout our education system, and with conservatives states like Arizona and Texas trying to eliminate ethnic studies or make schools use books with one-sided versions of American history, there is a legitimate fear that the current construction of post-raciality will widen racial divide much more than it is surmised to contract it. What Pops said was brilliant, because if Andre wanted his son to understand the history of Black people, it would have been more informative for the boy to watch Roots instead undergoing some botched, psuedo-African ritual. It would have equipped Andre Jr. to make the connection, and understand why “Blackness” is important to his father and why it should be important to himself.
Andre’s anxiety about his son’s diminishing “Blackness” was a very authentic aspect of the episode. Andre Jr.’s request for a birthday bar mitzvah may seem like extreme dramatization, but it was raised key issues of assimilation. For Blacks kids and other minorities, assimilation is often a compromise that ends with subtraction, while for white kids, it’s appropriation and addition. In 2014, a fourteen year old Black, non-Jewish kid asking his father for a bar mitzvah (though I died when he said he wants to be called Shlomo or Shmuel) and playing field hockey isn’t as farfetched a white, Jewish peer asking his parents to celebrate Kwanzaa and rename himself Osayande. Some would read this as another instance of “post-raciality” (i.e. Andre Jr. doesn’t “see race”), but it is more indicative of him understanding that the cultural capital of “whiteness” (or Jew-ish-ness, though I wouldn’t construe it that way) is more valuable than his own in the environment he is in. Andre Jr. alludes to this early in the pilot, calling himself “Andy” instead of his real name, because it’s “more approachable”, and uses the maxim “When in Rome…” to explain why he is doing these things. He is very aware that he stands out in a world that clearly still sees color. The flipside of assimilation is Andre Jr.’s white friend. When his white friend walks in the kitchen without greeting anyone and looks through the fridge. Andre addresses him in disbelief of the boys ignorance to Black cultural norms. He is oblivious to the fact that in a Black household, it is rude for an acquaintance to come in your house and not greet everyone, to go in the fridge without asking, and especially rude to do both. The boy responds that he was looking for grape soda (a stereotype that all Black people love grade soda) and he found one (maybe an ode to Dave Chapelle? “…I want that purple stuff“); a “comical” example of how stereotypes can be true, but also that white folks ignorance of Black cultural norms is inconsequential, since beyond surface level knowledge of it is very rarely required.
All and all, I thought there were some big issues with the pilot, but it had many redeeming aspects. Black-ish tackles some really complicated issues about race, sometimes clumsily, at other times gracefully. The show acknowledges that these problems have no easy, uncompromising solutions. And I’m glad it isn’t Dat’s What I Was Tellin You Before (lol)
Looking forward to watching Episode 2.