And now we’re cooking with some gas! Not that the previous episodes of Black-ish were by any means horrible, but it’s when the show tackles a thorny issue where it gets to interweave some social commentary in with the chuckles that I believe this show shines.
And boy did this episode cover a particularly sensitive and timely issue: corporal punishment of children.
One thing to note: This episode was written and shot prior to the Adrian Peterson case in which he was arrested for disciplining/beating his young son with a ‘switch’ (aka small branch). Originally this episode was slated to be the second to air but was pushed to later in the run since at that time the Adrian Peterson case had just exploded. Having seen it now, I think having it air in the order it intended might’ve been a better as it does do a thoughtful examination of how and why spanking/whuppin’ might be considered by a parent in any household ((not just black).
We begin at the end. That is at the crux of the episode: Dre, black leather belt in hand as he stands before a wide eyed, scared out of his wits, Jack, who has wisely ensconced his wee body in about twenty layers of clothing in a bid to provide cushioning and protection for his bum against whipping belt.
Dre wonders how he and Jack got to this moment. The show obliges by flashing back to show us:
Rainbow in DEFCON 2 mode running through a department store in tears, mascara running down her face as she screams for her lost son. She alternates between desperation, collapsing in a wailing heap, and ripping into a poor security guard who manages to unearth Jack giggling from his hiding spot in the middle of a clothing wrack. As relief gives way to rage when she realizes Jack had remained hidden despite hearing his mother crying for him, Rainbow promises her son that he won’t be laughing later after she tells his father what he did and gives him a spanking he’ll never forget. This sobers Jack up enough for his mother to drag him out of the store, their retreat slowed when Rainbow sets off the store alarms due to her still clutching an unbought clutch in her hand, held onto during her frantic search for her son. Tracee Ellis Ross’s Rainbow scolds the sudden swarm of policemen with this beauty of a line: ‘Oh, it takes you two hours to find a little black boy, but when the store alarm goes off you bring out everyone in seconds!’ She leaves the security force stunned and in fear of their lives when she continues on her way – ‘I’m keepin’ it’- she declares waving the purse in their face and daring them to follow her.
Dre quickly learns of Rainbow passing the disciplinarian buck when she relays the day’s events to him and says that Jack needs to be taught a firm lesson to never pull this trick again. When Dre rightly wonders why he and not Rainbow has to discipline their child, Rainbow asserts that since Dre has spanked before (Andre, whose single Denzel tear distress from the incident traumatized Dre so much he was laid up in bed for 3 days) that they should remain consistent and have Dre spank Jack as well. Dre remains torn: yes, Jack needs to be disciplined but he remembers getting spanked by his dad and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Pops favored using a hot wheels race track that would POP! every time he would whack Dre with it to the point that the POP! would announce Pop’s arrival. It’s how he got his nickname. (I thought it was because Pops always seems to pop up out of nowhere like a silent ninja).
And what’s more he just doesn’t think he has it in him to go through what he did again. The memory of Andre’s beating still haunts him and he hopes that his son has somehow forgotten about that past unpleasantness.
Not so much as Andre retells the dark day that he went butt to leather with the black belt to his siblings. Andre sympathizes with his little brother but is comforted that he’s aged out of the whuppin’ window and his hide is safe. Pops pops in (like he always does) to correct Jr. on this erroneous assumption: as long as you got a butt, you’re always in the whuppin’ window. The belt don’t care for age nor gender (looking at you Zoey and Diane)!
As the kids all realize that they’re going to always live in fear of the belt, Dre polls his colleagues at work on their views of spanking. Did any of them get spanked? All answer in the affirmative and proudly cite it as helping them to be a better person and adult. Dre takes this in and is decided: he’s going to spank Jack. This brings an abrupt shift in the tone of the room as all are horrified at the thought-especially after confirming it’s the little son that they all like! He can’t spank his own son!
Back to being on the fence, Dre wonders to Rainbow why she didn’t discipline Jack in the moment. She could’ve taken him into a dressing room for privacy if she didn’t want to do it in public. Rainbow deflects his very good question with accusing Dre of not wanting to be the bad guy which he whole heartedly admits. He decides he’ll forgo the belt and just give Jack a stern talking to- which an eavesdropping Diane happily relays to her anxious twin reminding Jack that she was right: their Dad is soft.
But the next day Dre is hardened when Jack pulls the same hide and seek stunt again and has the whole family tearing apart the house in search. Dre falls apart as badly as Rainbow did, lamenting the loss of his favorite child and all the hopes and dreams he had for his son, but when Jack pops out of his hiding place all giggles and proud of eluding his father, it’s all Pops can do to hold Dre back from dishing out a whuppin’ right then and there. Instead Rainbow takes him to school where he can think about what’s to come later alllll day.
While there is no doubt in Dre anymore about what he has to do, the kids all scramble to come up with a plan to save Jack. They worry that Jack’s whuppin’ will reopen the door to the practice in the household and that they’ll all be at risk. Diane logically points out that their father needs to be overruled and the only person who can do that is their mother. And how do they get her to stay Dre’s whuppin’ hand?
By Jack working his cute afro, chupacabra eyes, and sweet little voice into overwhelming his mother with his helpless cuteness. Which of course works because Jack IS the cute one. When Dre comes home ready to get his whup on, Rainbow begs him to relent. Dre refuses: if we back down now those kids will think we’re punk ass bitches! Pops pops in again to bestow unto Dre his pride and joy: his hot wheels whuppin racing track. ‘You should always beat someone you love with something you love,’ he intones, Dre correctly assessing from his words and the glass of White Russian that his father may be a little drunk.
Dre marches upstairs giving a reluctant Rainbow instructions on how to aid in the grand event (she may need to block the door from escape or hold down flailing arms and legs if things get crazy) when they’re met with Zoey, Diane, and Andre taking a stand in front of Jack’s bedroom door. They announce that if their Dad whips Jack, he has to whip them all. It’s a sweet, stupid moment of sibling solidarity that crumbles in seconds. The mere sound of the crack of Dre’s belt has them all stumbling backwards, realizing that Dre is all too ready to take them up on their challenge.
Open and honest about selling their brother out, Jack then resorts to plan B of trying to protect himself by wrapping himself with as many clothes as possible. Why he doesn’t believe his father would make him take it all off before they got down to business, I have no clue. The short sightedness of youth.
Meanwhile Dre is selecting a shirt and belt for occasion, finally settling on a black polo shirt over his white wife beater and going classic with the leather black belt.
And then he waffles, he and Rainbow going through the process of the pros and cons of a spanking with Pops literally popping into the middle of the conversation– you don’t know when or HOW he got into the room without us seeing him!- and telling them both to quit stalling and get on with it!
And finally we’re back where we began: Jack, the trembling center of a mound of clothing and Dre with a belt at the ready.
And then…Dre caves. Or rather he realizes the contradiction of his actions: hurting his son to make sure that his son doesn’t do things that could hurt him.
So he throws his belt to the side and tells his boy to sit and they talk. At first it doesn’t go well, Jack is still looking for hiding places and totally ignoring the plea coming from his father to stop hiding. But when Dre throws up his hands and works HIS chupracabra eyes on his son and says ‘I’m disappointed in you’ a flip switches inside Jack. His jaw drops, his eyes widen, he sits up as if shocked and cries ‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, daddy!’. Crushed, Jack begins to sob and runs from the room and is met by Pops who was fine with a child crying from a whuppin’ but not from being told he disappointed his father. Scolding Dre for crushing his son’s spirit, Pops whisks Jack away.
While Jack was spared an actual beating, his siblings don’t know that and they all fall victim to the legend of Dre and his black belt rather than the reality. Since all they saw and heard was their brother running from their parent’s room crying, they assumed their father actually went through with it. They each retreat to their own corners, determined to toe the line to avoid the same fate and Dre having earned some serious cred without so much as a whack.
In the end Dre is touched to realize that it is his opinion – and not the threat of his belt- that is the real tool for disciplining his children. They actually care what he thinks of them which is a boon in itself, but that he can use it to keep them in line? All the better!
One final thing to note: This is another episode that really spoke to me, not because my parents wielded the belt, but they often threatened to wield the belt (or comb or brush in my mom’s case) with the same bi-polar intensity/reluctance as Dre and Rainbow so that I was much like the Johnson kids in having an underlying fear that the whuppin’ belt was always a’waitin for when I screwed up too much (although it never ever came whistling). Basically my parents played a great game of chicken where I was the one who always blinked.
In the end, I think the episode did a great job examining the hypocritical reasoning behind spanking even as they had Jack make a good case for it with his antics. We got a lot of amusing scenes that helped the viewer digest the beats of a touchy, polarizing topic with a resolution that wasn’t preachy. A fine line well walked!