“Why are all these people so mad?” It’s a simple question, a child’s question, asked, in fact, by a child in the opening minutes of Wednesday night’s episode of ABC's “black-ish,” a powerful yet never preachy exploration of police brutality against black Americans.
With a near-miraculous balance of frankness, rage, humor and humanity, creator Kenya Barris and his cast not only designed an emotionally nuanced conversation about the issue, but they also offered exquisite proof of why the issue known as diversity is so important to the entertainment industry.
Deftly using the terrific comedic chemistry of its cast and writers to address issues of race and culture in a way never seen before on any screen, “black-ish” has become -- especially in its second season -- a solid family sitcom that is often a half-hour revelation.
The season opened with an episode about the N-word that should be required viewing for every American. Since then Barris has masterfully mixed topics large and small to create three generations of vivid characters dealing with the wide-ranging realities of life as black upper-middle-class Americans.
Sometimes those realities spark situations any family can relate to. Sometimes they involve internal clashes about what being black does, and does not, mean; the title comes from Dre’s first-season realization this his children are not black the way he thinks of being black.
And sometimes events remind the Johnsons, and their viewers, that being black still too often involves facing racism and other forces outside their immediate control.
Which is the larger answer to the question asked by Jack Johnson as he and his family watch the news reports of protesters awaiting a court’s decision regarding police who used a Taser on an unarmed black man 37 times.
The more immediate response is a silence shared by Jack’s elders, as the camera moves from one adult face to another it becomes a silence as profound as any of the words that follow.
Jack’s parents, Andre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), immediately disagree about how to answer him. Dre, convinced that once again injustice will prevail, believes Jack and his twin sister, Diane (Marsai Martin), need to know the unvarnished truth. Bow, convinced the court will hold the officers accountable, longs to preserve their innocence for just a while longer.
As the twins are moved in and out of earshot, distracted by the task of choosing takeout for dinner, the rest of the family -- including Dre’s parents, Pop (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), and the older children, Junior (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) -- vent their anger, frustration, confusion and, in Bow’s case, hope.
Peppered with jokes about O.J. Simpson, Chipotle and the movie “Trainwreck,” it is a magnificently paced conversation that quickly moves from humor to pathos as a parenting issue becomes something else: an emotional ballet in which each character reveals the outrage and fear that hides behind indignation, resignation, political theorizing, emotional distance and even hope.
Among many fine moments, one stands out for its subtle brilliance.
Midway through the episode, Bow reassures Jack and Diane that they will never be shocked with a Taser; if they are ever stopped by the police, they will simply do whatever the officer asks
“If you have to talk to the cops,” Ruby says, backing her up, “there’s only seven words you have to know: ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir,’ and ‘Thank you, sir.’”
Hitting each syllable with the staccato swiftness of running feet, Lewis infuses those seven words with the horrifying weight of two meanings. With an uncharacteristic quaver in her voice, Ruby is offering life-or-death advice to her grandchildren while echoing a centuries’ old relationship of oppression.
“'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir,' and 'Thank you, sir.’”
“Black-ish,” and Lewis, should win Emmys for that moment alone.
The conversation continues, through twists and turns both existential and torn from the headlines, to wind up in a place where it began. The anger that confused Jack at the beginning of the episode has not only been thoroughly explained, it has become the embodiment of its title. Hope is only possible if change is possible, and change is only possible if enough people demand it.
So the conversation ends with everyone but the twins and Ruby heading off to join the protests.
But the episode ends with Ruby spray-painting “Black Owned” on Dre and Bow’s pristine garage door. “Bring it on, boys,” she says as she hunkers down in her lawn chair.
Because “black-ish” is a comedy -- an increasingly brave and revolutionary comedy -- and if you think it is afraid to send a black family out to a protest while, in the same breath, it makes a joke about the L.A. riots, well, you’d be wrong.
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