‘black-ish’ is coming to an end, but it understood the assignment
Kenya Barris, Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson and more talk about the hit ABC comedy coming to a close
Back in 2015 when ABC announced its newest show, black-ish, there was immediate controversy. Some people, including me, were turned off by the name. Others found the idea of the show offensive — so much so that there was a Change.org petition launched to get ABC to cancel it. The petition claimed the show and its name were “racist, socially damaging and offensive based on its concept that nonstereotypical Black people are less their race than others, that hip-hop culture is all Blacks are supposed to embrace, and that culture and race are one in the same.”
All of this happened before anyone had even seen one episode of the show. For better or for worse, black-ish was a topic of conversation throughout its entire eight-season run. Over the years, the show made us laugh, cry and think — and it won the critics and viewing audiences over. It used its platform to teach, not preach, and as the series comes to a close Tuesday night, the takeaway is that it accomplished what it set out to do.
The show centers on Andre “Dre” Johnson Sr., a successful advertising executive who’s worried about his Blackness; Rainbow Johnson, his biracial wife, who is a doctor; and their five kids — Zoey, Junior, Diane, Jack and eventually Devante.
Series creator Kenya Barris — who also wrote, at times directed and is an executive producer of the show — remembers the initial uproar.
“I remember the controversy about the name. We had different names, but that was the one I was determined to go with,” Barris told Andscape. “It can sound like ‘Black s—’ or like Black ish [a common euphemism Black folks use instead of saying the actual expletive]. It was an homage to what Black culture meant to everyone. We had seeped into a little bit of everything.”
Black culture dictates so much of popular culture that for many people who are not Black, those lines can become blurred to the point of erasing its origins. At its best, black-ish was adept at showcasing Black culture in a way that was consumable and understandable for everyone, and Barris says that was intentional.
“You don’t have to be Black to get it, but you really get it if you’re Black,” he said. “It was something for us, by us, but in the best version of anything, the way we broaden ourselves is to speak to the populace.”
In the beginning, Barris said, his initial intent was just to get the show on the air and get the green light beyond the pilot. The power of what could be done with the show was revealed to him and his team as they continued working on the show.
“I would be a liar if I said the goal wasn’t to get an episode two and a little bit more money in my bank account, but as the show went on, we realized we wanted to talk about things,” he said. “It got to a point where we realized the show was too important, and we had to stand for something. And it stood for something, because people started trusting us, and we had to talk to them about things other people wouldn’t talk to them about. It became sort of like journalism.”
Indeed, black-ish took on topics like the election of President Donald Trump, the spread of COVID-19 and the impact of police violence. If the purpose of journalism is to tell the truth and inform the public about what’s happening, black-ish took that mantle and dissected the information in a way that made it understandable for everyone, regardless of their age or racial background.
“We wanted to make sure we represented a lot of different points of view,” Barris said.
The way this was done was by using a family that Tracee Ellis Ross, who played Rainbow Johnson, described as “an American family that didn’t happen to be Black; we were Black, so the stories and our experience were anchored and grounded in the experience of being a Black family.”
It certainly wasn’t the first TV sitcom to focus on a Black American family. Good Times, The Cosby Show, The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and others were all built around Black families. The difference is how black-ish handled the Johnsons and the subjects they tackled.
“So often in the canon of television and sitcoms we have seen Black families represented, but they just happened to be Black and are living extraordinarily wonderful lives,” Ross said. “Our stories were based in the culture, race, identity, selfhood, tradition — all of those different aspects of what it is to be Black in America.
“It was a character-driven comedy that was about a Black American family, and we would take subjects and issues that were on the wallpaper of everybody’s lives in this country that we don’t always talk about, but we’re all bumping up against,” she said. “We took them one at a time off the wall, put them in the middle of the kitchen floor, and got to see how the Johnsons would make sense of it, trip over it and then eventually unpack it — sometimes putting it back on the wall, sometimes not. When we did, we had a better understanding of what we were actually walking by every day.”
Simply put, black-ish (and its spinoffs grown-ish and mixed-ish) tackled issues that every family in America could relate to, but through a Black lens, and worked through them without being preachy or beating us over the head with a MESSAGE every five minutes. Normal, everyday issues such as sibling rivalries, the trials and tribulations of living in a multigenerational household, talking to children about sex or internet porn or drugs or the importance of being honest. It took all of these topics on, helping us to gain understanding while also making us laugh, which was the entire point.
“We didn’t set out to answer questions or to solve problems, but to unpack and humanize the experience of what so many of us are navigating and honestly what so many families are navigating, period,” Ross said. “The relationship between a mother-in-law and a wife, the dynamics in generational relationships between a grandfather, a son and a grandson — just so many different dynamics. The relationships of these characters gave birth to some really funny and interesting material.”
Barris said having different generations in the Johnson household was key to representing different points of view. Each person comes with their own identity and set of beliefs. Each person approaches situations differently and is going to come away from them differently depending on where they started.
The show did a good job of “keeping it real” while telling our stories in front of a wider audience. If the accusation is that black-ish pandered to the white gaze, then the rebuttal is that in doing so, it was able to present Blackness fully, unambiguously and as Anthony Anderson, who starred as Dre, put it, unapologetically.
“The stories that we told were authentic to us personally and authentic to this family that we were portraying,” Anderson said. “The specificity and truthfulness with which we told these stories is what I believe made our show resonate with audiences across the board.
“Because we were dealing with life issues and the American dream, and that has no color and has no gender,” Anderson continued. “We were just telling it from the perspective of this beautiful Black family. In doing that, families saw the struggles that this family was going through and could relate to it, and that is what made the show relatable because we were just authentic in the way we told the stories.”
The Johnson family was not perfect. The parents made just as many, if not more, mistakes than the children. The grandparents — Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) and Earl aka “Pops” (Laurence Fishburne) — were perfectly imperfect and funny, and even the lessons they learned as older adults were valuable to us all.
In black-ish, Ruby is Dre’s mother, dotes on her son and is constantly giving her daughter-in-law Rainbow the side-eye. Yet when Rainbow was at her most vulnerable and preparing to deliver a premature baby, Ruby was quick to show up at her side in a kinder, gentler fashion, advocating for her in the hospital and even kissing her on the forehead to comfort her. The beauty in that one moment spoke volumes.
Lewis, who played Ruby, credits the show’s writers for what we got on screen.
“The writers were the stars of black-ish,” Lewis said. “To have combined the comedy and drama with all of those necessary subject matters had to be an enormous challenge. How do you write a show about the N-word and be funny? How do you write a show about how the temperature and temperament of the country was in a state it had never been in before and hold your ground in speaking to it?”
When black-ish did tackle the N-word, it was done in such a way that we got to see “all sides” of the argument. The beauty of that episode is that it showed us all the different perspectives — Rainbow being vehemently against the use of the word juxtaposed with Ruby’s frequent use of the word, Dre’s wanting to reclaim the word, and Pops wanting everyone to understand how hard his generation fought to not have that word used against us. And at the end of it all, the show didn’t tell you how to feel. Instead, it gave you all these different perspectives and left you to sit with it, ponder it and figure out on your own where you stood with it.
“It was poetry. It moved everybody. Especially being a family show,” Lewis said. “There was generational crossover. A grandmother could watch, as well as a young kid. Because the show was so glued and compacted in its message, and because it was written so well, it allowed what was beneath the writing to be smelled, tasted and touched. The senses were alert for that show. People wanted to know how far will they go.”
And just how far did black-ish go? It went everywhere. One episode focused on postpartum depression, something that many women suffer from but rarely talk about, let alone get help for. Ross said the episode is a personal favorite because of the way it went about destigmatizing mental health issues.
“The way the episode was written was exceptional because it was actually Dre who pointed out [Rainbow’s postpartum depression],” Ross said. “Bow is a doctor herself, but somehow she couldn’t come to that realization on her own, so we get to see a husband and wife really work through something like that together. The person who was poking at it from a judgment perspective was Ruby, and that showed the generational difference.”
The show also educated people on the significance of Juneteenth — so much so that after that episode aired in 2017, the holiday was added to Apple’s iCalendar program. And while those “big” episodes helped elevate the show’s popularity, the magic was in all the other ones where we saw the Johnsons living everyday life. From Zoey making college decisions to Dre navigating executive life at work with clueless white co-workers who constantly commit unintentional yet hilarious microaggressions — some so egregious that you have to laugh to keep from crying — the show remained relatable in a way that helped everyone walk away with a little more understanding.
Long after Tuesday night’s final episode airs, people will continue to watch the show (via Hulu). With its dynamic portrayal of a well-to-do Black family navigating life in an America that often leaves them feeling disregarded and disrespected, black-ish helped its audience learn and grow just as much as each of its characters.
“At its most successful version, black-ish is for everyone just like we are for everyone,” Barris said. “The contributions we have made to this country. The White House was built by Black people. This country is at its greatest when we embrace everything that everyone brings to it.
“We all want to be seen, and that is the biggest contribution black-ish has made,” Barris added. “It made us be seen in a way we haven’t been before. We wanted to be on after one of the biggest family shows [Modern Family] because it was important for those people to be able to see us, and we made people see us in a way they haven’t seen us before.”
During its premiere episode in 2014, black-ish pulled in 10.78 million viewers.
Anderson said he believes the legacy of the show will be that it pushed the culture forward without being afraid to go there and talk about things affecting the Black community as a whole.
“We came at it from the mindset that it’s always easier to spoon-feed someone information with a teaspoon of sugar than it is with a teaspoon of salt and not beat anybody over the head. Just to be as authentic we could be while telling these stories,” Anderson said.
“I’m pretty sure that you’ve experienced this in your everyday life where we laugh at ourselves,” Anderson said. “Laughter is the common denominator to sharing information and creating dialogue. If we can sit here and laugh at ourselves and laugh at a situation, we can talk about what we are laughing at and why it’s funny, and then we get into discussions of sharing experiences, and that’s how you create a dialogue.”