The bad news is I didn’t make it through all the shows (I’ll catch up with you yet The 100!) but the good news is I did manage to finally get my Black-ish on and blow through the first 10 post pilot episodes during the holidays. Seriously, if you haven’t caught this show, you really should do your own cram watch to enjoy this gem. It’s a wonderfully funny, family comedy that, yes, talks about black stuff but also makes it universal to any race or ethnic group that’s felt the strain of trying to bridge two worlds and wondering where one belongs or if you truly belong to either.
Frankly, I feel each episode deserves its own due (rather than a composite review) so starting today I’m posting catch-up recaps for season 1 until I’m all caught up and will continue to post recaps for the rest of the season. Yay!
And now…Episode 1, aka, ‘The Pilot’, where we meet Andre ‘Dre’ Johnson (portrayed by Anthony Anderson) as he wakes up in the bedroom of his palatial mansion next to his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and gives the audience the lowdown of his life up to now: born in the projects, Dre worked his way up to live quite large in Los Angeles with a great house, great wife, four great kids, and a great job- which is about to turn into an awesome job with a promotion to SVP coming that very day. Dre’s working class father is Pops and is grouchily portrayed by the much too young and still very fine Laurence Fishburne (apparently pulling double duty by doing this and NBC’s Hannibal) who pops in and out to deliver color commentary on pretty much everything but especially how Dre’s compromised his blackness and it’s spread to his children.
Dre poo poos Pop’s conclusions to his face, but personally he’s aware of how black culture has been co-opted and diluted by other groups (or been influential and evolved if you want to put a positive spin on it) and yet despite the black culture becoming more pervasive, there is still an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality that still exists. Dre believes he has hopped that divide to become one of ‘them’ only to have the air sucked from his balloon after learning that he’s gotten his promotion, but it’s over the ‘black’ stuff at his predominately Caucasian marketing firm.
Suddenly Dre feels the sting that no matter how much you’ve made it and how much you’ve worked to fit in and play the game, he’s still seen as black first and a man second. A conclusion reinforced by his father while Rainbow tries to make her husband see that they all have battles to fight to keep climbing the ladder and that ultimately, Dre did get his promotion and achieve the dream of ‘making it’. He should be happy and embrace it. Dre tries to maintain a positive outlook until the pokes and prods to his pride can’t take it anymore and he becomes determined to not only keep it real for himself but for his kids as well. Which means that there shall be no Bar Mitzvah for his son Andre’s (possibly Andy or Schlomo or Schmule) birthday but an African Rites of Passage ceremony, his twins Jack and Diane will identify their classmate to him by race instead of by their names and/or smell, and Dre himself will show his boss what’s urban by giving the most urban presentation pitch he’s ever seen.
Of course Dre goes a wee bit too far in both regards- drawing laughs and severe side-eye from Pops as he forces young Andre to endure his bumbling through a rites ritual complete with leaf and twigs blowing into faces and full dashiki attire and then Rainbow’s disbelief in learning that Dre’s ‘keeping it real’ urban presentation has resulted in his being sent home by his boss for a cooling off period to determine if a mutual uncoupling job wise is on the table.
Now at a low, Dre is at a loss as to how to reconcile the issues he’s facing at work and home.
The answer comes in the form of boobs. Or rather Andre admitting to his father that his newfound passion with Field Hockey was in the quest for getting a foot in the door with the girls at school who are Field Hockey groupies and hopefully feel his first boob. He’d play basketball if he could, but he really sucks at it. He understands that his dad is worried that he’s not black enough, but in his defense he’s still trying to figure himself out and who he is and wants to be. Dre is open enough to accept this and he and Pops realizing that Andre isn’t as bad off as they thought.
Pops drops a final bit of advice on Dre that rather than keep it real, he should keep it honest. What feels best to Dre?
What feels best to Dre is throwing his son a Bro Mitvah where Andre can celebrate his birthday the way he wants with black culture flair. Some viewers may have found this grating: isn’t this the ethnic/cultural co-opting that Dre was complaining about at the beginning of the episode? Sure, that’s one way to look at it. Or one could look at it as brining in aspects of other cultures that speak to us into our own in order to give a more complete picture of ourselves. And that Dre supporting this for his son was a little bit of him redefining his definition of blackness for his family.
Dre also takes Andre’s advice of getting your foot into the door and make some noise to heart and accepts his role as SVP of ‘The Black Stuff’ aka Urban Development and be prepared to run with it. Ultimately, he’s not a black man but a man, husband, and father willing to do what it takes to help his family and not just himself.
A lot to be covered and set-up in a 30 minute (22 mins w/o commercials) episode, but creator Kenya Barris manages to hit all the right beats of acknowledging some stereotypes and then flipping them on their heads, the contradictory feelings of straddling two worlds: one you want to stay ‘true’ to and the other you initially only want to navigate to survive but also begin to feel some affinity for, the shared amusing (and not so amusing) experiences, trials and tribulations of the ethnic ‘outsiders’ in their dealings with the establishment, and the differences of generational attitude towards race and viewing the world from Pops (everything is a race debate) to Andre and Rainbow (we are aware of the struggle but things are better) to their children (What struggle? Life is great!).
And all this was done while being entertaining, not preachy, and gut-bustingly funny. The Black-ish pilot went a long way in setting up a world and a family whose exploration of the evolving definition of what it means to be black is something I am excited to watch. Not only because I see myself in all these characters (well, mostly in Rainbow and the children (Andre, Jr., Zoey, Jack, and Diane); my parents are the Dre and Pops in my life) but because it’s bringing a relevant discussion to the forefront for not only the black community but to many ‘bi-cultural’ communities struggling with the same question of ‘Who am I?’.
Thankfully the laughs and learnings of the Johnson clan shall continue into the foreseeable future: Black-ish was secured for a full season on ABC. Here’s hoping creator Kenya Barris can keep both the funny and the thought provoking sometimes awkward culture clashes coming.