“Black…ish and other Media Mistakes”

MARCUS SCRIBNER, TRACEE ELLIS ROSS, MARSAI MARTIN, ANTHONY ANDERSON, MILES BROWN, LAURENCE FISHBURNE, YARA SHAHIDI

OK, I’m trying to give the new TV season a try. We all know that every year there are hits and misses and with the growing number of platforms and venues…500 plus Cable Channels, Netflix, Hulu, and now Amazon Prime there should be something for everyone to view. However, the major broadcasters still hold incredible power in the media world. For example ABC also owns ESPN and all of its offspring. The company is actually a Disney subsidiary so if you go to Disney Land or Disney World you will see many iterations of ABC programs.
Over the past few years ABC has made quite a splash with both drama (e.g. Private Practice, Grey’s Anatomy, and the wildly popular Scandal) and comedy (e.g. Modern Family, The Middle). This year ABC introduced 2 shows that feature either Black ensembles or lead actors. The first is “Blackish”–a story of an economically successful Black couple who is raising their family in the suburbs with fairly predictable results. Cut off from the everyday experience of being around Black peers, the children are gravitating to the lifestyle and cultural modes of their White peers and the father (and his father who lives with them) bemoan the “whitening” of the family.
While such a premise can indeed lead to an interesting and entertaining show, the writers seem to miss the mark in some significant ways. First, the show is billed as a “Cosby Show” revival. I don’t think so. The Huxtable family lived in New York amidst a wide array of Black people from many walks of life. The parents attended a mythical Historically Black College and most of their friends were Black. Bill Cosby drew heavily from his own experience to develop the show. He grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with a population of working class and middle class Blacks and probably a number of White families during his formative years. Phylicia Rashad attended Howard University in an era where the “best and the brightest” in the Black community sought to send their children there. The Cosby Show was an attempt to counteract the rampant stereotypes of Black people that pervaded the media and placed us in roles as stupid, lazy, inarticulate buffoons. Everything from Amos and Andy to Rochester (on the Jack Benny Show), to Beulah were standard fare. In the late 1960s we began to see a few more complex renderings in shows like Good Times (the poor but honest family) and The Jeffersons (the strivers who were conscious of their tenuous hold on middle class American life). Of course there continued to be those shows that pulled on past images–Sanford & Son (which I still love) and Martin. However, when the Wayans brothers developed In Living Color we got a range of satirical and edgy comedy that began to display a variety of Black perspectives.

ABC has been at its best with a comedy show like Modern Family–tackling issues of change in our most intimate setting–our homes and I imagine its hope is that Blackish will fulfill a similar niche concerning race. But thus far it is not there. I am reluctant to offer a wholesale condemnation of the show at this point because I recall the incredibly slow start of the Cosby Show. In those early episodes it was clear that Cosby has assembled a good-looking group of Black people who were not very good actors. At times those early episode seemed to be an enactment of Cosby’s stand-up with other people buzzing around him. However, overtime the cast got better…much better. So with that in mind I am hoping that Anthony Andrews and Tracy Ellis (who has wonderful comedic talent–remember, Girl Friends?) will take the show in a better direction. Right now, the only solution to the angst that main character Andre Johnson (Anthony Andrews) has seems to be moving…back to the hood, to a more diverse community, or continuing to live that tortured life that these early episodes feature. I’m not sure what it will take to salvage the show but typically if it’s a show that White people like and Blacks don’t it will survive…Anybody remember “Friends?”

Stay Black & Smart!

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2 thoughts on ““Black…ish and other Media Mistakes”

  1. I share your assessment of this show, “black-ish,” starring Anthony Anderson, Trace Ellis and Laurence Fishburn. Mr.Fishburn is the saving grace for me, but I worry that this show may damage his reputation. After last night’s episode, I struggle to share your optimism about the potential for its success but completely appreciate the “Friends” comparison. As an educator I found Dre’s behavior in the classroom totally out of character with the professional he is supposed to be. His antics should have gotten him banned from that classroom, if not the school. I was so repulsed by this episode I turned off my television midway the show, after persevering through the previous episodes. The writing needs to improve and/or the actors need to be trusted to employ their incredible talent and skills. Otherwise, “there’s nothing to see here folks!”

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  2. I think that largely, the show suffers from the baggage of its name. I was able to come to come to enjoy The Cosby Show, The Bernie Mac Show, Sanford and Son, Martin and even The Hughleys because they were one set of writers’ take on a Black family’s experience. Sitcoms are necessarily outrageous at times and there was a way that I could choose to relate or not. With something called Blackish, they are purporting to be THE experience for upwardly mobile Black families. I didn’t always think that Bernie Mac’s parenting style was so stellar always but it didn’t keep me from laughing for fear that I would betray the race.

    On the flip side, this week’s episode did two really interesting things for me even at the expense of Anthony Anderson’s sense of decorum. It gave the watchers white and Black alike a little more information about Harriet Tubman and her bravery. Many people know about the UGRR work but the fact that she actively sought information to help the north win the Civil War is not necessarily common knowledge about her. And the second tidbit about the teacher being a first in her class doctoral candidate in the American Studies Department acknowledging how terrible white people’s behavior is in American history was not something that you normally see on sitcoms. I rewound that part and watch it again. 🙂 I’m not going to give up on Blackish. I think they took a gamble with the name but I’ve decided that since I am Deeply, Brilliantly and Boldly Black that this thing called Blackish may only have a whisper of a shared experience. I won’t take it personally.

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