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At last, 'This Is Us' captures the simmering rage of a successful black man in white America

Ron Cephas Jones, left, portrays William and Sterling K. Brown is Randall in "This Is Us." (Ron Batzdorff / NBC)
Ron Cephas Jones, left, portrays William and Sterling K. Brown is Randall in "This Is Us." (Ron Batzdorff / NBC)

WHEN DONALD TRUMP WON the 2016 presidential election, the responses — especially from those who voted for Hillary Clinton, double-especially from those white men who voted Democrat — ran the gamut, from shock to awe to fear before landing, eventually, on anger.

They began railing about injustice to anyone who would listen. “How could this happen? How could forces unseen [to them] and unfelt [again, to them] result in such catastrophe?”

Occasionally, those flummoxed white men would turn to a black friend and say, “Do you believe this?”

At which point the black friend, if they were feeling particularly honest, would say, “Welcome.”  

Welcome to the nebulous emotional state that is simultaneously helpless and furious. Welcome to feeling the vast sociopolitical forces arrayed against you while still possessing the desire to just make it through the day. That world-weariness was the source of a skit from the first post-election episode of “Saturday Night Live,” in which host Dave Chappelle and special guest Chris Rock were tickled by the white outrage at Trump’s victory.

But that simmering rage, too long the nagging ache from shouldering the tonnage of the black experience, has never been fully painted on American TV screens until Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson on NBC’s “This Is Us.”

Randall, abandoned by his father at a firehouse, is adopted by a white couple after one of their triplets doesn’t survive childbirth. He grows up to become  an upwardly mobile black man working and living in the kind of New York suburb where you imagine all the houses have manicured vines growing on them. He’s got a black wife and black children and he wears a suit to work and has a corner office where he trades on the futures market. (I think — there was an entire episode about how no one knows exactly what he does or how he does it.)

In those ways he is no different from other black professionals we’ve seen on screen since “The Cosby Show” debuted in 1984. He’s Blair Underwood’s Jonathan Rollins from “L.A. Law” in 1987. He’s James Avery’s Uncle Phil from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” 

Except Randall is angry. Foundationally angry. Angry at the hundreds of micro-aggressions a successful black man navigating a predominantly white world has to absorb on a daily basis.

And for the first time, on television, we are registering the weight of that anger. Because Brown, with a wounded righteousness, shows it to us.

“Because I grew up in a white house you think I don’t live in a black man’s world,” Brown’s Randall says to his father, William (played by the hauntingly evocative Ron Cephas Jones), while they shop in a high-end clothes store.  “The one where that salesman there has been eyeballing us ever since we came in here. Or where that security guard has moved just a little off his mark so he can keep us in his sight. And where they’ll definitely ask for an ID with my credit card when I go to pay, even though they haven’t asked for anybody else’s. Plus a million things every day that I have to choose to let go. Just so I’m not pissed off all the time. Like I did on the street this morning. Like I have done every day of my life.”

Unlike Sherman Hemsley's George Jefferson, whose righteous anger was played for laughs; or every “angry black man” who pops up in a doctor-lawyer-cop drama simply to be the thing that needs fixing by the show’s hero squad; or even Laurence Fishburne’s well-meaning, often-drunk grandfather on “black-ish,” who registers the scars of a life whose edges weren’t defined by him — Randall is a time bomb who regularly resets himself by swallowing his rage.

That he doesn’t explode is a miracle of the everyday variety.

(It’s worth noting that August Wilson’s “Fences,” currently in theaters in a production directed by and starring Denzel Washington, also paints a picture of black rage, but there its source is progress passing one by — a dream long past being deferred.)

The presidential election showed us a great number of things, but none more illuminating than the idea that America is “one nation, under God” is nothing more than an idea for many. A myth. A story told to children to help cement the dream of a better tomorrow and a world that wanted them — all of them — in it.

The election showed us that there was another America — an America that responded to Trump’s stump speeches and campaign promises of an America that could only be great if “we” began registering, isolating and walling off those things “we” didn’t like. An America that preferred “alt-right” to “white nationalist” and even if they didn’t answer the door when the KKK came hawking their affiliation, they maybe didn’t throw away the literature, either.

It was an America that seemed — if one uses the meteoric rise in hate crimes after Nov. 8 as a barometer — to equate “political correctness” with “empathy.”

What makes “This Is Us” such a remarkable achievement is that it’s a show that wades into this America with this portrayal of black masculinity. More than that, it’s not a streaming show (like the routinely challenging “Transparent”) or a prestige cable outing (like carnally adventurous “Masters of Sex”). It’s a broadcast drama. It, by definition, has to appeal to a broad audience. And it does.

“This Is Us” is the story of the 2016-17 TV season. With its time-shifting, tear-jerking narratives that deal not only with race but with body image, fame and family loyalty and betrayals, the series is  an unmitigated hit. It is not simply playing to the “coastal elites” — “This Is Us” is playing to everyone, everywhere. And some of that everyone are people who insist that all lives matter.

Maybe they are showing up to “This Is Us” for the vapidity of Kevin Pearson (Justin Hartley) or the monomania of Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) — Randall’s adopted siblings. Maybe they’re tuning in because they love the handlebar mustaches of the flashback-to-the-1970s story lines.

Doesn’t matter. Because what they are getting is an exploration of barely contained fury. They are getting a tutorial in what it’s like to be the target of the slings and arrows of genetic whimsy — the at-once bad luck and glorious burden of being born black and brilliant in white America.

For the first time, we are seeing the struggle of the assimilated man.

The enduring fight to not succumb to a death of a thousand high-fives.

Twitter: @marcbernardin

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