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It would probably be hard for anyone born after 1980 to believe this, but once upon a time, network sitcoms had no problem tackling thorny issues of race and class. All in the Family. The Jeffersons. Good Times. All were funny and all openly explored stereotypes of one form or another.
By the late 1980s, however, this kind of overt racial comedy became associated with racism. If skin color came into play at all, the jokes were the sly, wink-and-nod Seinfeldian style wherein self-conscious meta-irony was the point, and the punch lines didn’t much mean anything.
Over the course of its debut season, ABC’s Black-ish has seemed intent on changing that.
Premiering in the fall of 2014 to strong ratings and even stronger critical reception, the show centers on Andre “Dre” Johnson (Anthony Anderson), who is, much like Cliff Huxtable 30 years before him, an upper-middle-class, African-American father with a beautiful wife and a set of precocious children.
However, unlike The Cosby Show, Black-ish isn’t about an affluent family that happens to be black. Rather, as its title demonstrates, it presumes to explore what it means to be black in post-Obama America.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the show’s preoccupation with identity is an early episode where Dre receives a promotion at his advertising agency. He’s elated and proud, until he learns he’s been made the vice president of the “urban division.” Or as Dre sees it, the vice president of black stuff.
Furious, he produces a hard-core, rap-scored ad campaign that trades on every negative image of the inner city: droopy pants, riots, flashing guns, and gold teeth.
The setup is especially complex because later Dre grows frustrated that his son Junior (Marcus Scribner) sees no reason to befriend another black student at his mostly white school. They don’t have anything in common, Junior points out. Dre’s wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), whom Dre occasionally derides for being only half black, sees this as cause for celebration, as proof that Martin Luther King’s dream is bearing real fruit.
Dre, however, worries that his children are not only forgetting their heritage but are losing the sense of community he enjoyed as a child. He is nearly apoplectic when his son passes by the other child without giving him “the nod.” It turns out, to Dre’s horror, Junior doesn’t even know about the nod (the nod being a small chin jerk of acknowledgment two black men ostensibly direct toward one another when in a large company of white people).
It’s a funny moment, but it also reflects the tension pulsing through the American soul today. Which is most likely to secure a flourishing society: a melting pot where our differences blend into a shared culture of assimilation and become indiscernible, or a salad bowl where different races and ethnicities maintain their distinctness? If it’s both, where should we draw the boundaries?
Black-ish shines a light on such anxieties and, to a white viewer, provides a window to a point of view we are sometimes quick to dismiss. Perhaps, Black-ish suggests, Americans of European descent are eager to embrace color blindness because we lose nothing from it. On the other hand, Dre learns from his civil-rights-era father (Laurence Fishburne) that “keeping it real” is not the same thing as “keeping it honest.” Achievement is not a color issue.
Where Black-ish loses its nerve is in portraying Dre as just another bumbling, clueless father who is constantly learning new life lessons thanks to the wisdom of his wife and children. It’s the same setup we’ve seen on family sitcoms for the last 30 years. It’s also disappointing that for all the incisive, edgy identity humor Black-ish showcases, it occasionally slides into cheap, played-out sexual gags.
Still, when so much discussion of race today feels encumbered by fear, resentment, and entrenched political profiteering, Black-ish is refreshing for unabashedly confronting our greatest point of national angst and laughing at it.