Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gutsy: Black-ish Takes On Donald Trump's Election

A scene from the January 11th episode of ABC's Black-ish.

Note: This post contains spoilers for the Jan. 11 episode of Black-ish.

There’s been no shortage of ink detailing the ongoing battle between President-elect Donald Trump and NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, whose satirical – and often funny and spot-on – jibes directed at Trump are driving the thin-skinned, infantile soon-to-be (God help us) Commander in Chief nuts. But the January 11 episode of ABC’s sharp sitcom Black-ish trumped Lorne Michaels’s creation with a beautifully written and tellingly observed show that got at the new realities in present-day post-election America and the disturbing and ever more apparent rift between the country’s left and right flanks, as well as the gulf separating those citizens who wanted Hillary Clinton to be their next President and those who were content to make Donald Trump their leader.

Narrated as usual by the character of Andre "Dre" Johnson Sr., the black ad executive played so well by Anthony Anderson, the episode deals straight on with the sense of unreality so many Americans (but particularly African Americans) felt about the simple fact that the orange-haired blustering reality-TV star had actually won the election. It so stunned Dre that he and his compatriots at work haven’t been able to concentrate a whit and now an important ad campaign is due. (The firm got the contract on Nov. 8th, Election Day, and figured once Hillary won that they could breathe a sigh of relief and get on with the job.) And now, with that deadline looming, the employees of the ad firm, black and white, male and female, are still up in arms about the election, with most of them on the Hillary side.

The episode, entitled “Lemons” and written and directed by series creator Kenya Barris, stands out, not just because it matches the generally witty and smart series' best work but also because it’s illuminated by the passion of the writing and the actors' performances – of Anderson, of course, but also, in particular, of Marcus Scribner as Dre’s son Andre ("Junior") Johnson Jr. Junior learns to his chagrin that he’s only been aware of the uplifting part of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s famed "I Have a Dream" speech and not the entire text, where it functioned as a call to action to right the injustices faced by Black Americans back in the 60s and still, sadly, relevant, to their plight today. Andre Junior is given that shocking lesson by his grandfather Earl "Pops" Johnson (Larry Fishburne), Dre’s father, who usually functions as the cynical comic foil to his often overwrought son but here displays a softer, more serious side, as befits the subject under discussion. The cynical aspect of Pops is rendered, though, in his repeated comment that the white folks have conspired to keep the full truth of MLK’s speech from being taught to young black kids. As Pops opines, there’s more of firebrand Malcolm X in Martin than is commonly realized. Junior is learning the speech in his role as student body president for his part in a Healing Day at his high school, prompted by some of the white students' harassing a Spanish teacher by uttering, "Send her back" when she tries to discipline them. (This is fact-based behaviour as more than a few such racist incidents have been reported.) The joke here is that she wants to go back to Spain now that her visa is expiring; she’s not the Hispanic American the bigots think she is. The show is always very adept at sticking humour into the midst of provocative commentary, as when Dre’s eccentric black co-worker Charlie (Dean Cole) assumed Barack Obama was a Republican and when Dre tells him he's not insists on looking it up on the Internet anyway. (That’s a great and subtle dig at the purveyors and believers of the fake news world.)

From left: Wanda Sykes, Allen Maldonado, Anthony Anderson and Deon Cole in Black-ish. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC)

Black-ish has never shied away from racial issues, but the electric scenes set in the ad firm’s boardroom where the senior employees hash out their differences really made me feel like I had a front-seat view of how post-election America is presently functioning, when the opposite sides are actually talking to each other as they do here. (I should mention that I am a Canadian and many, perhaps most, of us are horrified by Trump’s win and more than a little upset by the racist goings on in the U.S.) Lucy (Catherine Reitman), the sole white woman in the boardroom, asked by black company co-owner Daphne (Wanda Sykes) why she didn’t stand by Hillary the way blacks stood by Obama (despite his rampant misogyny, 53% of white women voted for Trump), reveals that she decided to vote for Trump for economic reasons – though she also blurts out that she has black friends. (That she voted for Obama both times confirms that racism is not the only factor in a vote being cast for Trump. As Dre later says, the Trump electorate can't all, or even mostly, be racists.) Leslie (Peter Mackenzie), Dre’s immediate boss, the white co-owner of the company, only supported Hillary because he employs many illegal Hispanic workers at home and doesn’t want to lose access to those he exploits. The rest fall into different spectrums of liberalism, ignorance and self-satisfaction – as in real life, I’d say. (Unconsciously – or maybe not – the characters line up by colour on opposite sides of the company desk.)

But it’s Andre, whom Leslie accuses of not caring about America, who gives the most impassioned speech of all. Angrily exclaiming that he loves his country even when it doesn’t love him back, he castigates his white co-workers for standing silent all those years when blacks in America had to work the shittiest jobs, live in the crummiest neighbourhoods and put up with the most blatant racism -- and now that Trump, the most patent symbol of American intolerance and bigotry, is in charge, they’re scared, too. He also reminds them, trenchantly, that even if blacks voted for Hillary, as he and his family certainly did, they didn’t do so in the expectation that their lives would all change for the better (most of them hadn't thought so even with Obama), but in the hope that it just might improve things anyway and because electing a woman as president would indicate progress. I can’t help believing that this speech reflects the actor’s own view, so powerful is his emoting in this scene. (It’s likely Anderson’s best acting to date in Black-ish, which is about half way through its third season.)

There’s one hopeful bit, too, laid out in the scene where Dre’s daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) reminds her mother, Rainbow ("Bow," played by Tracie Ellis Ross), who is pushing her child to take a more political stance for Healing Day – Zoey is making lemonade for the students – that she and her high school friends will be able to vote in the next election and can then make their positive feelings felt at the ballot box.

Marcus Scribner in Marcus Scribner in Black-ish.

That may seem like a lot of plot for one 23-minute episode but it all meshes perfectly and never feels preachy or sentimental. (It is a bit embarrassing that Daphne can’t utter the word "pussy" – as in Donald Trump’s vile comments about grabbing it – without the network's censoring the word, and I’d argue for believability’s sake that Leslie, Dre’s boss, who's been prone to all sorts of racist comments and generalizations in past episodes, would have been a Trump supporter, too.) Even Dre’s insistence that though he can’t fathom how anyone could have voted for Trump -- that, despite how scared he and his fellow African Americans are of the future, Americans of all political stripes and creeds need to talk to and not at each other -- works dramatically and makes one wish that more Americans felt that way and would do something about the lack of communication among them.

If you’ve watched Black-ish over the last few years, you wouldn’t be surprised that it’s this forthright and honest about America’s racial realities. It’s tackled police shootings of blacks, as Dre and his wife tried to explain to their na├»ve kids how this could happen in their country and also how black men can be perceived by white people. One hysterical episode had Dre and his fellow black workers petrified to try to help a lost blonde boy by himself on the elevator lest they be accused of being predators. In another funny episode, Dre, forced to take his drunken white female neighbour home from a block party, imagines being stopped by the cops. Those fantasies end with his being shot or running for his life. He does run when he's pulled over and only the fact that he and Andre Junior are faster than his brother-in-law Johann (Daveed Diggs) saves them from a beating; Johann is the one who gets roughed up. But the series doesn’t let Dre or his surgeon wife and their prejudices off the hook either -- even though Rainbow is herself the product of an interracial relationship -- as we see when Andre Junior brings home a white girlfriend.

Clearly we’ve come a long way from The Cosby Show (NBC, 1984-92), whose upper-middle-class African-American family – similar in so many other ways to the Johnsons in Black-ish – was rarely allowed to be concerned with or even aware of what it means to being black in the U.S. (Son Theo’s anti-Apartheid poster on his bedroom door was about the only indicator that the Huxtables even had a racial identity or consciousness.) Obviously we no longer want the sanitized version of black (ghetto) life as exemplified by Good Times (CBS, 1974-79). But now that The Good Wife has ended its stellar run, Black-ish, along with How to Get Away with Murder, remains one of the few American network shows that actually deals with political and racial issues. (Most other leading or successful comedies like The Big Bang Theory, New Girl or Modern Family, which precedes Black-ish on Wednesdays nights, generally stick with the personal and apolitical.) Outside of Saturday Night Live I don’t know how many network shows, whether currently on the air or due down the pike in the coming years, will actually tackle Donald Trump and what his Presidency will engender for his country during the next four years. I don’t doubt, however, that Black-ish, as evidenced once again last week, will continue to demonstrate the courage of its convictions.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just concluded teaching a course on groundbreaking movies. He lectured on The Image of the Jew in Film and Television: Realities and Fantasies in London, Ontario, last September and October.

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