Black-ish, starring Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Laurence Fishburne, premiered last night on ABC. Of course, all of black twitter had something to say about it. Most people had a positive response to the show while others were less amused and ripped the show a part from beginning to end.
I can’t say I’ve seen such a critical eye put to a show in a long time, and I know why—it’s because it’s about black folks. I’ve previously argued Blacks hold Black things, such as Black Entertainment Television, to a higher, if not impossible, standard than anything else we consume. We’re so deprived for representation on TV that we want each attempt to be spot-on and perfect. I believe the same thing is happening here with Black-ish criticism. Some people argue they don’t see themselves in the pilot and therefore they doubt they will continue watching and that’s fine. The new show is not the first Black sitcom to be criticized for not being all-inclusive enough of the “Black experience.”
There have been several critiques of the beloved TV legend The Cosby Show because of what many feel is a lack of race commentary or a direct address of race issues at the time. That’s a fair critique, but it still does not rival the epic wonderful goodness that was the long-running classic sitcom. It wasn’t perfect, but it was refreshing and novel at the time because it showed a sector of Black American life that had not yet been shown on TV at the time—middle class Black folk. Contrary to the ‘started from the bottom now we here’ premise of The Jeffersons and the ‘survive through the struggle until we make it aura’ of Good Times, The Cosby Show depicted a seldom spoken of reality of several black people—myself, the product of over a decade of private school education, included.
Black-ish has a few solid things working in its favor: the premise and the characters. The premise of the show is a corporately successful Black man, Andre Johnson, longing for his family to hold on to their ethnic and cultural heritage even though they are fully immersed in white suburban life. This conundrum is a very real one for people who not only live in white neighborhoods but educate their children in white institutions. Can you really blame your son for going by Andy when he’s at school even though you named him Andre Jr?
Each of the main adult characters represents a different facet of Black American thought. There’s Pops, who clearly lived through or soon after, the civil rights movement who teases his daughter in law for serving “baked fried chicken.” He’s a combination of Civil Rights Era freedom fighter and militant we all in the struggle together advocate.
Then there’s Rainbow, Andre’s bi-racial wife, who doesn’t completely see the need for her family to be so strongly connected to their roots. She believes being black and successful is enough and once she became a surgeon there wasn’t much else that needed to be done for the cause. Then there are the kids who represent the alleged “generation who doesn’t see race” though it’s revealed later on that Andre Jr. is very much aware of who he is and has no problem with where his people came from. He, like every other high school freshman, just wants to fit in with his peers. Last but not least there’s Andre Sr., who has just been appointed Senior VP of the Urban Division, and trying to navigate the balance between his racial identity and the lack of people of color surrounding him.
The show makes great critiques of liberal whites in the workplace. One of my favorite moments is Andre pointing out the strong racial divide between middle and upper management in the company. Middle management was extremely diverse while upper management was lily white and sat on an opposite side of the table with better snacks. Though Anderson was clearly exaggerating for the sake of the show the visible depiction of the divide highlighted a very real trend in companies where there are enough people of color/women to fill the diversity quota but they are kept out of positions of real power.
The show has the potential to be a very humorous critique of whiteness and realistic commentary on Black upper-middle class life. With the premieres of Scandal, How To Get Away with Murder, Gotham, Grey’s Anatomy and Sleepy Hollow all in one week Black viewers find themselves in a position they haven’t been in a long time…with options. If you don’t love Black-ish, that’s fine because it’s not the only show featuring people of color on TV there are other shows to watch. We’re nowhere near where we need to be in terms of television, but we’re heading in a great direction.
Personally, I was sold on the show when Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” started playing within five seconds of the beginning of the show. I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with the pilot of the show, and I look forward to watching the rest of the season and seeing where the show goes.