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Black-ish helped rewrite how TV comedies talked about race, culture and families of color

  • NPR

    The ABC comedy was "daring to walk that tightrope just as some television networks were trying to get serious about showing diversity onscreen," says Eric Deggans in reflecting on the end of Black-ish ending its  eight-season and 175-episode run. "And it wasn't always an easy path, especially when Black audiences weren't quite sure if they were ready to trust TV producers to get their culture right." Deggans adds: "Television, particularly on the broadcast networks, often struggled to depict how race can sometimes be the most important thing for a person of color, and at other times, move to the background. In Black-ish, ABC had a sitcom which put that idea in the title." Noting that Black-ish was a network-friendly version of creator Kenya Barris' life, Deggans says: "Like Dre, Barris' wife Rainbow was a biracial anesthesiologist; and like their small screen counterparts, the two are parents who have had their ups and downs as a couple. Before Black-ish debuted, I had heard about other celebrities of color pitching TV comedies about the pitfalls of raising kids who were more privileged than they were growing up. Black-ish took that concept further – often showing that Dre's rigid ideas about race and class lines could be downright outmoded in a country that had re-elected its first Black president and imported so much of its pop culture directly from African American life. But just when that vision got too comfortable, the show would take a close look at police brutality or Donald Trump-inspired racism to show how little some things had changed, after all."


    • Black-ish shattered barriers while upending previous primetime portrayals of families of color: "With a thrust that was frequently revelatory but never harsh or preachy, Black-ish succeeded as a situation comedy about a loving family and as a sharp look at how successful Black people still need to push back against stereotypes and false perceptions," says Greg Braxton. As Braxton notes, "before Black-ish, most major network sitcoms centered on Black households, such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Hughleys, The Bernie Mac Show and My Wife and Kids, were vehicles for their stars, who were usually stand-up comics. These shows often shied from dealing with serious issues facing Black people in the tradition of The Cosby Show, which featured an upper-middle-class Black family but rarely showed them outside their fashionable brownstone. Black-ish took these series as important influences but upped the ante on topicality...The series confronted hot-button topics head-on with stories centered on racial and cultural divides, including the use of the N-word, the election and presidency of Donald Trump and police brutality against Black people. Family love was a constant emphasis."
    • Black-ish's series finale stuck the landing, despite cramming a lot in: "It was the last scene that really sold the episode, offering a reminder of a show that consciously sought to raise the bar for the network sitcom," says Brian Lowry. "The focus of this final chapter, subtitled "Homegoing," involved Dre (Anthony Anderson) deciding that he needed to shake up his life by moving from the mostly White area where the family had lived and watched the children grow up to a Black neighborhood -- or as he wryly put it, one of those places where they filmed Insecure...The move brought back a flood of nostalgia about all that the couple had experienced and push-back from their kids, who understandably felt some reluctance about leaving the only home they'd known."
    • Showrunner Courtney Lilly doesn't want Black-ish to end, while creator Kenya Barris wasn't able to attend the filming of the finale: Lilly and Barris, who was busy filming a movie, discussed ending the series with Deadline. "Obviously there have time constraints and this and that, but that was a lot of our crew in that shot," Lilly says of the final scene. "If I could go back, I just would’ve stayed there longer, you know? ‘Cause that’s what we felt where we wanted to be. We knew we wanted to celebrate what so many of us had done over the last eight years — not just the cast, not just the writers and executive producers, but the people who showed up 5:30 in the morning to make this show. Once we got the idea for the jazz funeral, we wanted our people to be a part of that. It was incredibly moving, especially since over the last two years were we weren’t able to spend a lot of time together. Everybody was so honored to be able to participate in this moment." What won’t they miss about being on broadcast TV? "Commercial breaks," responded Barris. Lilly added: "The realities of network television versus streaming and all those kinda things. We were literally like, there’s no reason it needs to end, it can go on for years and years."
    • Black-ish series finale cut a scene showcasing Junior’s decision to head back to college: “There was a whole B story in the finale that we had a cutting all of it, where he was talking to Olivia (Katlyn Nichol), his girlfriend that had broken up with him a few episodes earlier,” says Lilly. “He was going to try to do a very Seinfeldian idea where he tries to ‘win’ the breakup by showing her how impressive he was, and how everything was going great. Eventually he breaks down because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and maybe he should have gone to college after all. She says that it’s OK to go to college, you can always change your mind. He ends up at Cal U, and it’s one of the last shots of this montage we were supposed to see. But then the episode was 30 minutes long.”
    • Kenya Barris admits he'd like Black-ish to be considered with the great Black shows: “I know we’re not supposed to talk about The Cosby Show, ” he says, chuckling, “but I hope it’s mentioned in the same breath as Norman Lear and The Cosby Show.” That said, Barris says he’d like to think of the show’s impact extending far beyond the screen. “I want to hope that we had something to do with Juneteenth becoming a holiday,” he says. He also likes to think that Black-ish contributed to a landscape that allows for creators like The Underground Railroad‘s Barry Jenkins and Selma's Ava DuVernay “to be able to have more of a specific voice” so that audiences can see “we are not just monoliths in our storytelling, as well.” 
    • Lilly says there were discussions on how to end Black-ish starting in Season 7: "We started talking about the direction in even season seven — because we didn’t know if that was going to be the last season — about what we wanted to do with the Johnson family," says Lilly. "And I think for Dre, the character, what was baked into the pilot was this idea that there’s a lot of anxiety that he felt by having to represent all of Black America in his behavior, in his workplace and even in his home just because of his neighborhood. It felt like something we knew we were driving toward. But then to make that feel like something that that could still be a celebration, and still be fun — what’s that story? So we kind of arced that out for the whole season. We knew we were getting to that. And then you’re sitting there and you’re like, well visually how do you make it interesting, dramatic or cinematic to move into a new neighborhood?"
    • To prepare for where the Johnsons would find themselves, Lilly and his team went back to the pilot: “For us, a lot of the anxieties that drove Dre as a character were rooted in him being an outsider in the communities he was in, both in his neighborhood and his workplace,” he says. “It’s a common experience for a lot of African-Americans living in predominantly white neighborhoods and workplaces. A lot of that anxiety is brought on by ourselves in a way. Obviously, there are microaggressions, there are real aggressions, there are things to contend with. But it’s the things we do to kind of not bring those things on, as if we can control that, that creates a level of anxiety. We found a lot of our stories driven over the years by Dre trying to control those anxieties.”
    • The Black-ish franchise will continue being lucrative for Disney: “I’m keeping the ‘-ish’ franchise alive and the ‘-ish’ franchise is keeping me alive,” says Lilly, who will become co-showrunner of Grown-ish with Zakiyyah Alexander. “I’m extraordinarily lucky to be here. It’s great to be still in the world. I love working. We’re excited to see what people think as Marcus in this new world, see the new cast we’re bringing in.” Meanwhile, Lilly won't rule out a Black-ish revival. “We live in a world where literally, I’m sure every show that’s ever existed has been talked about being rebooted,” says Lilly. “So who knows, nothing’s ever gone.”
    • Anthony Anderson didn't expect to be so emotional filming the finale: Anderson told Ellen DeGeneres he cried, but not as much as Tracee Ellis Ross. “Actually the last day, I think I cried a little bit more than (Ross) did, and I didn’t think it was going to hit me the way that it did,” he said. “Because we had been working up to that moment — we knew what the last day was. I had been prepping myself for it, and in the last scene on the last day is when I lost it, and it was unexpected for me. I didn’t expect to lose it the way that I did, but that just goes to show how much I love what I do (and) love doing it with the people that I did it with for the last eight years.”
    • Marcus Scribner say and Miles Brown say filming the series finale really hit us hard: “This was really my childhood, to be honest, when I was 9 to 17," he says. "I think just looking back on all the memories and the things I have learned and applying that to all the new things in the future is the biggest thing to take away,” says Brown. “I really am looking at all the positive things and applying it to new stuff. I think with all the kids on the cast around our age really started — Yara (Shahidi) and Marcus were a little older — but with Marsai (Martin) we were the only kids, and we would do school together. We really all bonded. We would be filming on set and then by the time we did school, it would be us two doing school. Having that connection, Marsai is my twin. We have been to so many places. I have lifetime relationships with everyone.” Scribner, who is joining Grown-ish, adds: “I still have a lot of Junior in me, but it will be cool to dive into more and bring that all out again. So, as I go to Grown-ish, I am continuing to evolve. I am very excited to see what happens,” 
    • Black-ish kids reflect on the show's legacy: For Yara Shahidi, the 2016 "Hope" episode was an opportunity to add layers to her character. “It’s the first time you see how deeply Zoey cares,” she said at a recent National Museum of African American History and Culture panel. “I feel like it taps on something generationally that so many of my peers were going through, in being a young Black person in the world and either feeling like you were going to breed such a deep sense of apathy and detachment for survival reasons, or you have to tap into the vulnerability in your support network.” Scribner praised the show’s writers for helping to make sure his character grew over the course of eight seasons. “Our characters were able to evolve. They never stayed stagnant,” he said. “We were always learning as individuals and people in real life. But that also translated into the scripts that we received and the choices that we were able to make as actors. Our producers and writers invested a lot of trust in us.”
    • A look back at Black-ish's best guest-stars
    • See the Black-ish cast then vs. now
    • Here are Black-ish's 10 best episodes according to the cast
    • Read Black-ish fans' goodbye tweets
    • Watch the Black-ish cast say goodbye on Jimmy Kimmel Live!

    TOPICS: Black-ish, ABC, Anthony Anderson, Courtney Lilly, Kenya Barris, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, Yara Shahidi, Series Finales