It has divided presidential opinion with its treatment of race, but Kenya Barris’s series is redefining modern comedy by balancing issues and laughs
By Homa Khaleeli / The Guardian / Saturday 25 February 2017 07.00 EST
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It’s a question that has divided US presidents: is the sitcom Black-ish the best thing on television or, well, racist? For Barack Obama, the show is like watching his own family on screen, while Donald Trump tweeted that the title alone is “racism at highest level”. If it is hard to imagine, say, Mrs Brown’s Boys sparking the same passion, that’s because Black-ish is not your average network comedy.
The programme follows Andre “Dre” Johnson, a wealthy executive, and his family through the usual sitcom misunderstandings, squabbles and moral dilemmas. So far, so Cosby Show. But Black-ish’s creator, Kenya Barris, has made a small tweak that sets the programme on to an altogether more groundbreaking track. Race is not treated as an incidental background detail but part of the show’s identity. The Johnsons are not a family who “happen to be black” but a family who are black. If that doesn’t sound revolutionary, it’s enough to ensure this broad, warm-hearted comedy confronts issues of race, class and culture every week.
While other comedies, from The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air to A Different World, snuck similar issues into their long runs, the directness of Black-ish’s approach is refreshing, from an episode dealing with police brutality to one finding gentle humour in how long the services in black churches can be. And the ratings and Emmy nominations point to its ability to find quick-fire laughs in both racist stereotypes and Dre’s ability to see them everywhere.
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Over the phone from LA, Barris admits that putting race at the centre of a mainstream comedy was a risk. “I was nervous,” he says, but “comedy is a good way to give people a spoonful of sugar with their medicine”. Besides, he never saw an alternative. “I wanted to talk about my family,” he says. “The specific speaks to the universal, and the best story I knew was a family which was absolutely black, living in a world that was changing around them.”
He is not exaggerating about drawing from life. Barris’s wife is a biracial anaesthetist called Bow, just like Black-ish’s matriarch Rainbow, while the real-life couple have six children to the fictional Johnsons’ five. Dre’s central dilemma (which gives the show its name) mirrors Barris’s own anxieties: that by giving his children privileged lives that are so different from his own impoverished childhood, they might lose their cultural heritage.
“I grew up in the ’hood with nothing, in an almost exclusively black neighbourhood,” Barris explains. “My children were growing up in a predominantly white environment; I called them flies in buttermilk. They were black but a little bit ‘less than’ the version of black kids I remember. At the same time their friends – most of whom were white – were a little more black … I realised youth culture had become a homogenised version of this blended oneness, and I was a bit of a dinosaur.”
Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson as Rainbow Johnson and Andre “Dre” Johnson in Black-ish. Photograph: ABC
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He says that “90% of the episodes are based on real life”, with one episode lifted straight from his daughter’s phone. “I saw one of her text chains and it was ‘N-word’ this, ‘N-word’ that. I looked at it and said: ‘I don’t think [my daughter’s friend] should be using this word.’
“We got into this huge conversation. I was like: ‘You don’t understand its history and you are letting this white boy say this …’
What followed was a funny but nuanced episode on the politics of the N-word, much to his daughter’s annoyance. “She was like: ‘Dad! [My friend] called me and said: ‘Did you tell your dad I used the N-word?’” he chuckles, clearly unrepentant.
Last month, Tracee Ellis Ross became the first black woman in 34 years to win the Golden Globes’ best actress in a TV comedy or musical for her role as Bow (the last was Debbie Allen for Fame in 1983). The daughter of Diana Ross says the power of Black-ish lies not just in “the magic and beauty of a family which is not always represented” b