Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
ABC’s black-ish airs tonight, the timing well-aligned with the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show's premiere. This new show once again promises us a sitcom about a "normal African American family." What’s new here is the setting: an, ahem,“post-racial," gentrified world that complicates how we think of race and racism. And, luckily, it does so pretty successfully, with relatable humor based on real-life situations.
In the pilot, Andre (Dre) Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) makes it perfectly clear that he and his “pigment-challenged, mixed-race wife” Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) are not Cliff and Clair Huxtable. The careers of the Huxtables made them comfortable enough financially that the show could focus on the interpersonal dynamics of their large brood — without any real financial aspirations or worries. (In other words, they were a fantasy.) But, black-ish is more realistic, bringing up the professional and individual challenges that makes the glossy veneer of The Cosby Show dull in comparison. And, the Johnsons are more materially conscious than the Cosbys. While both sets of parents are proud of their humble beginnings, there is a sense that Dre — who is stylin’ and profilin’ — has a bit of the late-'90s hip-hop consumerism in his outlook. The Johnsons' struggle to reap the benefits of upward mobility clash with their racial consciousness and the fact that, despite societal progress, freedom’ still ain’t free.
This is not A Different World, a spinoff of The Cosby Show, that, while it displayed the complexities of Black life in college, avoided pitting assimilation against wearing one’s blackness on one’s sleeve. Can you do both? Or do you need to choose one side? While Andre the father struggles to sidestep racialized limitations at work, his son Andre Jr. opts to “fit in” by going by “Andy” at school. (“It’s edgy but approachable,” he says.) Interwoven throughout black-ish is the struggle between benefitting from upward mobility into a predominantly white world and retaining cultural authenticity. black-ish shows that while it’s possible, it’s not going to be easy.
Dre’s cantankerous father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) complains about the dissolution of the traditional, stoic Black family. “Why don’t y’all get a room?” he complains when Andre shows his son some affection — affection that he has obviously resisted showing his own in order to "toughen up" Dre. “I can’t believe I marched on Washington and fought for my country to watch that mess.” “You shot yourself in the foot to get out of the Army. And, you were in D.C. for an Isley Brothers concert,” Dre shoots back, displaying that while his father’s generation of limited emotion for fear of not preparing his son for "real-life challenges" came with limited acknowledgement — and desperately needed affection. As there have been quite a few real-life situations in the news in relation to Black parentage, the depiction of the relationship between two adult Black men is much needed.
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
The pilot also delves into Black masculinity and how the parameters for “being a man” have changed. There are generational differences between not only father and son, but also the world in which Dre’s was raised ("the hood"), and the one his four children experience. His youngest son, Jack (Miles Brown) has no idea how culturally significant Barack Obama is, simply because he is the only president he knows. Fried chicken, a cultural signifier within African-American communities, is now baked, due to the societal, health-conscious awareness.
While the show is full of funny lines, it occasionally comes with cringe-worthy commentary that sheds light on the real complexities about modern Black authenticity. Dre is incensed when Rainbow doesn’t seem to share his irritation when he realizes that his job promotion keeps him within the racially segregated creative division. “It’s not that big of a deal.” He then goes after her "omni-colored completion’" alluding that she isn’t "Black enough" to understand his plight. Rainbow uses this jab to respond with, "Well if I’m not really Black, could someone tell my ass and my hair?” The introduction of a biracial character provides the opportunity for black-ish to really talk about the fact that issues surrounding cultural authenticity for mixed-race Americans is rarely, if ever mentioned within African-American sitcoms.
Outside of an impressive cast, and a strong narrative about the complexities of Black life in an white, upper-middle class existence, the absence of a laugh track is one of the best things about black-ish. It forces the viewer to really consider not only where the humor comes in, but what it means regardless of your own cultural background.
A show about post-racial America airing on network TV today is an easy target for critics who believe that, since we elected an African-American president, the playing field has been leveled. Despite some ham-fisted writing and a plot crammed full of racial complexities, black-ish does a great job in drawing viewers into the world of the Johnsons and setting the stage for some interesting future episodes.