Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pilot Review: Black-ish

Black-ish (Wednesdays at 9:30 on ABC)

Jokes about race are lazy. They're about equivalent to jokes about farts, pooping, penises, and getting high. So when Black-ish was announced, I assumed we would be getting a thirty-minute exercise in immature humor and lazy punchline writing. Imagine my surprise when a totally coherent and very intelligent show about the construction of identity emerged on ABC's Wednesday night lineup.

Meet the Johnsons. Andre (Anthony Anderson) is an advertising executive up for promotion. His wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a biracial doctor. They have four children: teenagers Andre Jr. (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi), and twin six-year-olds Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin). Andre's dad (Laurence Fishburne) is staying with the family temporarily, and he disproves of his son's assimilation into white culture: their home is in an upper class (so, white) neighborhood, Andre works for a largely white firm, and none of the kids have any sense of pride in their shared cultural history, despite Pops having fought for civil rights back in the 60s. When Andre gets the promotion he's been vying for, in the "urban division" that seems to have been created simply to capture his black voice, he starts seeing things differently.

There's a really fascinating argument at the heart of Black-ish about what creates our identity. For all intents and purposes, Andre and his family (except Pops) would be considered white. They live in a big house in a typically white suburb, are highly educated, and work in white-dominated fields. So it's a surprise to Andre when he's chosen to be Senior Vice President of the Urban Division, because he doesn't fit that bill at all... except in skin color. For Andre, his race isn't something he thinks about, but it's something everyone else is seemingly concerned with. His coworkers and higher-ups see only that he is black, so he must be able to speak for an entire sect of people, right? Wrong. Andre doesn't know how to approach this new job offer, so he spins into crisis. Suddenly his son is forsaking his racial heritage because he wants to play field hockey rather than basketball, and his wife is the enemy because she is half-white and is therefore "not really black." (The response to this statement is priceless, and perhaps my favorite moment of the pilot: "If I'm not really black, someone please tell my hair and my ass.") This moment of existential crisis when Andre realizes that his blackness is something he has to contend with, to converse with, and to come to terms with was defined by W.E.B. DuBois as "double consciousness." The remainder of Black-ish is an interesting look at how he faces this moment where he realizes that he lives in both the black and white worlds, and I can't wait to see more of it.

Of course, there are some rough spots. Kenya Barris's (formerly a writer on The Game and Are We There Yet?) semi-autobiographical script does devolve into the lazy racial humor I mentioned earlier. There's a running gag about grape soda, and one of the first moments of the pilot is Andre musing (via voiceover, of course, because every pilot ever needs a voiceover introduction nowadays) about how things that previously belonged to black culture are being appropriated by others: Asians are the best hip hop dancers, Justin Timberlake is the most popular R&B singer, Kim Kardashian has the most desirable curves, etc. These jokes are old hat. The more genuinely funny moments come when characters are being racially insensitive without realizing it, like when Andre's boss tells him to put more "swag" into his presentation. Or how everyone is stuck in 1990 and tells Andre to "keep it real." These moments elicit laughs because the white characters are being tone deaf without knowing they're being tone deaf... and it's entirely likely that a portion of the white audience watching won't realize it's tone deaf either. That's where Black-ish's strongest humor comes from, because thought it's being applied to a situation in which a black man finds himself going through an identity crisis, it's the kind of thing almost any viewer can relate to. I think we've all had a moment, whether it's because we're part of a minority (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) or otherwise, where someone has said something offensive without meaning to be or knowing they are offensive. But it's those moments that ultimately shape how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to society. Black-ish challenges those notions, encouraging us all to break down our socially constructed identities and just be true to who we are... and that's a wonderful message for a show to have.

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