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Barris Writes 'black-ish' in the Tradition of Norman Lear
February 27, 2016  | By Monique Nazareth
 

“Hope is what keeps us as a people and a country moving forward. And sadly the best way to end that movement is to take away that hope. That hope at its core is all we really have to give our children. A belief in something better. But when everything around them is doing its best to squash that belief, what do you do?”

That was part of the narration in this week’s episode of ABC’s black-ish, Kenya Barris's series about the Johnsons, an upper-middle-class black family living in a predominantly white affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. It is a brilliantly funny show. Season 1 hooked me but Season 2 has stunned me. This week again showcased Barris’s great writing.

For those who haven’t watched, Andre (played by Anthony Anderson) is an advertising executive who grew up in Compton. His wife, Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross), is a doctor, the mixed-race daughter of two hippies.

They share their house with their four kids -- teenagers Zoey and Junior, and the twins, Jack and Diane -- and Dre’s divorced parents, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis.) Each generation brings different experiences, biases, and strengths. Plus Dre’s office colleagues (not the most politically correct group, particularly with the addition of Wanda Sykes), the private school mates of the kids, and the neighbors.

(WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD)

Wednesday’s heavily promoted episode, titled “Hope,” looked at the relationship between black people and the police. This wasn’t about the Black Lives Matter movement, Barris indicated, but about how you talk to kids about what’s happening around them. With a few flashbacks and some newsreel footage, the episode focused on the Johnson family watching the news coverage of a fictional case in which police are accused in a confrontation with an African-American teenager.

The case brought to mind other cases in the past few years in which unarmed black men or children were killed by the police.

Each family member plays a different and important role. Dre was angry about a justice system that’s rigged against black people. Rainbow tried to protect the twins from the news, to keep them from losing hope.

Pops, reflecting on the past, kept mixing up the details. (Watching Fishburne, I couldn’t help but reflect on his work with Spike Lee in movies like Do the Right Thing.) Using Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me, Junior tried to reach a deeper meaning. Apparently ignoring what’s happening around her until she finally bursts into tears, Zoey said she feels “hopeless.” And Ruby, preparing the house for a long period of riots, told the kids that if they have to talk to the cops, “There’s only seven words you need to know: ’yes sir,’ ‘no sir’ and ‘thank you, sir.’”

It felt like a dialog-heavy live stage show, infused with Barris's humor.

But, as he told the Washington Post, “I have never been as afraid about an episode of television that I’ve written in my life.”

He clearly put his personal feelings into the show, including when Dre and Bow reflect on Obama’s election and what it meant to them at the time.

“You remember that amazing feeling we had during that inauguration,” Dre says to Bow. “I was sitting right next to you, and we were so proud. And we saw him get out of that limo and walk along side of it and wave to that crowd. Tell me you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me you weren’t worried that someone was going to snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That is the real world, Bow. And our children need to know that that’s the world that they live in.”

The family concludes they need to get through this together and be part of the protests while leaving the twins at home with Ruby. The episode ends with Ruby spray painting “black owned” on the garage door then sitting in front of it.

It could have been Barris expressing his own feelings about the episode, which caps off an amazing season.

It started with the questions about who has the right to use the N-word, as Jack may be expelled for using it rapping Kanye West’s Gold Digger for his school’s talent show. Each generation differs in the use, meaning, and power of the word.

That episode was followed with a gun debate, with Dre wanting a gun to protect his family but Bow, for safety reasons, is against it. The family debate almost ends in tragedy as Dre mistakes Pops for an intruder. Only his incompetence with the gun saves him from killing his dad. That episode aired the day before the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. It also came at a time when the gun debate has heated up in the country.

Barris then focused on health with Pops refusing to see a doctor (right), saying it’s a generational thing. Turns out he needs a procedure for artery blockage, the kind of thing many of us face as our parents age and our views of medicine change.

More recently, there was a focus on finances -- whether Bow and Dre spend too much, are saving enough, and how money can hurt a marriage.

Barris tackles issue after issue faced by minorities -- and all of us -- always with humor, character flaws, and relevance.

In 2012, I was fortunate to meet legendary television writer and producer Norman Lear, who drew attention to uncomfortable and important issues in network sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude and Sanford and Son. I asked him, given the issues he tackled back then, if sitcoms today could go as far as he did. Lear said he didn't think the networks were brave enough, and that we'd only see that level of controversy on a cable channel like HBO.

I'd love to have the chance to ask him his thoughts about Kenya Barris, who I think is carrying on his tradition of social commentary. Kudos to ABC for recognizing the benefit we all get from his voice. As Jack Johnson said, “he’s keeping it real.”   

 
 
 
 
 
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