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‘Black-ish’s’ ‘Hope’ Takes on Police Brutality and Race

'Black-ish's' 'Hope' Takes on Police Brutality and Race

When “black-ish” revealed that the title of its second episode would be “The Talk,” it seemed as if creator Kenya Barris was wasting no time in getting down to business: First episode after the pilot, and they’re already talking about the conversation black parents have with their children about how to deal with the police?

“The Talk” turned out to be about sex, a far more well-trod, less-distinctive subject. But last night, 16 episodes into its second season, the show finally Went There. “Hope,” in which the extended Johnson clan gathered around the TV to watch as a grand jury failed to indict a police officer for using a Taser 37 times on an unarmed black man, was a major departure for the show, not least in the way it staged the entire episode in a single room and in near-real time. (It was “black-ish’s” “Horace and Pete.”) But although it was more dramatic than comic — and some of the attempts to inject humor into the proceedings, like a running gag about the family going to Chipotle for dinner, felt more apologetic than organic — it was a natural outgrowth of the characters and the issues the show has developed in its year and a half on the air. It was a disappointment when it seemed like this show was going to deal with this subject earlier and didn’t, but the richness of “Hope” shows it’s better that they waited.

Barris stressed in interviews about “Hope” that he thinks of the episode as “politically adjacent” rather than political, and that’s true in the sense that the episode airs multiple points of view but never settles on one. It’s about how you tell children that there’s evil in the world, and, more painfully, that there are problems their parents can’t fix. The episode’s most moving moment — poignant and startling in a way that goes beyond the easily packaged morals of your typical Very Special Episode — was when Dre recalled the joy of Barack Obama’s inauguration, and the terror that gripped him when Obama got out of his bulletproof limousine and waved to the crowd: the president, but still another black man whose body will never be fully safe. (Anthony Anderson played the monologue magnificently, showing us the fears under Dre’s habitual bluster.) Ta-Nehisi Coates served as one of “Hope’s” touchstones, with Andre Jr. quoting “Between the World and Me” and Coates himself appearing on TV discussing the recent history of police brutality against people of color. (A gutting detail: CNN anchor Don Lemon taped new footage for the episode, but Coates’ appearance was pulled from an earlier real-life broadcast; no need to fictionalize there.)

There was comedy in “Hope,” but it didn’t lead to the cathartic release of laughter: When the family argues over the details of the case whose verdict they’re awaiting, they can’t get the details straight: Is this the teenager who got shot in the back ? Maybe the man who got choked to death for selling cigarettes? Nope, not that one either. When the problem is so epidemic you can no longer keep track, the temptation might be to laugh so you don’t cry, but “black-ish” tried to hold its viewers in the space between those two reactions, easing the pain but not letting the anger go. That the Johnsons finally ended up leaving the house to attend the protests — not necessarily to march, but to be a part of them — paid off “Hope’s” bottle-episode constriction by suggesting that the important thing was to stop powerlessly watching TV and take action, even if that action is as simple as walking out your front door.

Reviews of “black-ish’s” “Hope”

James Poniewozik, New York Times

In a single half-hour, it connected Ta-Nehisi Coates with James Baldwin; offered a primer on Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland; contrasted Andre’s Gen-X-Malcolm-X black nationalism with the generation before and after him; and swiftly laid out O.J. Simpson as an “idiot” whose acquittal was nonetheless a moral victory. It was broadly relevant and brilliantly specific (see the final tag, in which Ruby spray-painted “BLACK-OWNED” on the garage, a visual reference to the Los Angeles riots). A sitcom can’t erase differences. (I can only come to “black-ish” as a white guy who watches it every week with two sons who love it; that doesn’t change the fact that they’ll never need the same version of The Talk that the Johnson kids get.) But “Hope” proved how sitcoms can still matter; even in a time of fragmented audiences, they can connect. No talk is going to work miracles, but it beats saying nothing.

Aisha Harris, Slate

It all unravels like a one-act play, with the banter and heated discussion flying effortlessly between each of the family members. Just when you think you can take a character’s statement at face value, it gets turned on its head, or another character provides a thoughtful twist to challenge that statement. When Ruby, purveyor of inappropriate (and sometimes, truly bigoted) mantras, makes the blanket statement that cops don’t care about black people, Junior, the eldest son, jumps in to say that “it’s a little more nuanced than that.” Dre’s  harsh, but funny, reaction (“I can’t wait until a cop gets a hold of your ass”) is met with Junior finishing his thought — that while police “deserve a place in society,” considering the number of fatalities they’ve caused, “there might be some issues.” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” plays a big part in the narrative, and the show holds it up as an important and influential book while also critiquing it

Sonia Saraiya, Salon

What’s fascinating about “Hope” — and indicative of how adept “Black-ish” is, as a show — is that in this thorny episode about a deeply shameful and infuriating problem, the storytelling around the children is the strongest, both funny and bright and heartwarming. It helps that Miles Davis and Marsai Martin, the actors who play twins Jack and Diane, are remarkable little actors. As the news of the shooting is spooling out on CNN, the kids’ parents, Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) usher them to the adjoining kitchen, trying to get them interested in takeout menus instead of the escalating argument in front of the television. Jack and Diane protest, because as Diane points out, we all know that they are just going to end up ordering Chipotle again. When they do end up overhearing some of the older family members’ impassioned statements—especially one where Dre says, with anguish, that “kids are dying on the streets”—the twins snap over to the adult conversation with alacrity. “Hold up,” says world-wise Diane. “Kids are dying?” “We’re kids,” Jack observes. The grown-ups become uncomfortably silent, leading Jack to ask Diane, “Why is everybody acting surprised that we can hear the conversation?”

Pilot Viruet, A.V. Club

One of the reasons I fell so hard for “Black-ish” was because it was depicting elements of black culture that I hadn’t really seen on television, because it was inserting music cues that you wouldn’t get anywhere else, because it was name-dropping the black cultural leaders that other shows weren’t (tonight: Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, you pick any current television series out of a hat and they’ve probably mentioned Obama at some point, but this was entirely different. This was so hyper-specific and so achingly real, perfectly capturing the up and down emotions we — black people — had. “Remember when he got elected and we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and maybe to a good place? That the whole country was really ready to turn the corner?” Dre asks, referencing the elation and optimism of seeing our brown skin—the skin that we’ve been punished, beaten, enslaved, and murdered because of—seeing that same skin on the goddamn President of the United States. But then he references the downside, the way in which our joy can so quickly turn to fear or (rightful) paranoia because that’s what history has taught us. “We saw him get out of that limo and walk alongside of it and wave to the crowd. Tell me that you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me that you weren’t worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do.” In that scene,”Black-ish” articulated something that I felt during the inauguration — this overwhelming fear that something would happen to Obama because that horror and fear is ingrained in my DNA — that I had never said out loud, let alone seen reflected on a Wednesday night ABC sitcom.

Nichole Perkins, Vulture

The subject matter of “Hope” is heavy — how to teach black children that the people meant to protect them more than likely may not — but —Black-ish” handles it with a levity you’ll find in any family during challenging times. Police brutality against black Americans is a prickly subject, especially in a time when a music video and Super Bowl halftime performance can be deemed as “anti-law enforcement.” After all the brouhaha about Beyoncé’s “Formation,” I’d be curious to know if ABC executives were nervous about airing this episode. Several characters share explicitly anti-police opinions, so it will be interesting to see if there is any fallout. I don’t think we’ll see calls to boycott Black-ish because the show’s reach is not as far as Beyoncé’s or the Super Bowl’s. But like Dre, the hope I have is fragile.

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

“Hope” was in many ways A Very Special black-ish, with the entire Johnson family gathered in the living room to talk about police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, while in the process of watching news reports about a fictionalized case with echoes of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, etc. (The context was softened ever so much for network TV’s sake — the victim in this case was repeatedly tased rather than shot and killed, but even Dre noted that the guy wasn’t in particularly good shape — but the episode still talked at length about the very real and very fatal incidents that inspired it.) And there were times when the transition back and forth between family hijinks — say, Zoey trying to remove the P.F. Chang’s menu from the dinner discussion, or Junior (rightly) complaining about the Marv Albert scene from “Trainwreck” — and this very weighty topic wasn’t particularly graceful. But for the most part, “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris was able to find the balance between laughs and gravitas with the “Hope” script, so that the episode could get away with a series of cutaway gags where Ruby explains Jeffrey Dahmer, Lorena Bobbitt, and Peabo Bryson to young Dre, because it’s in the context of the debate among the adult characters about how much Diane and Jack should be hearing about this very depressing subject. Similarly, it was able to take the running gag about Ruby’s experience at enduring riots and turn it poignant by the end, with the image of her sitting in front of the garage door, the words “BLACK OWNED” spray painted across it to dissuade potential looters.

Tim Surette, TV.com

But Barris wasn’t interested in making “Hope” about the outrage that’s plastered across 24-hour news channels when an announcement of “no indictments” comes down, or preaching the other side that the victims deserved it, because Barris knows the situation is much more complicated than putting it in black and white terms. Instead, Barris gave each of his many characters different voices in the conversation that relates to police brutality and the flawed justice system in order to encourage viewers to think. And the episode’s most emotional moment came when Zoey, who had previously been perceived as uncaring about the situation like a stereotypical TV teenage girl, confessed that she did care but didn’t know how to join the discussion because she felt lost and was still working out how she felt. It was Zoey’s bravest moment in the series to date, and it was her voice that spoke for most of us who have also felt confused and lost amid such a delicate subject that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Emily Chambers, Pajiba

for all of its failings, this might have been the best episode of “black-ish,” so far. In addition to being (at least to the best of my knowledge) the only network show to address the Black Lives Matter protests, it’s taken all of the elements that have been discussed in earlier episodes and weaved them into this conversation. The generational differences between Pops and Dre, how class differences impacted Bow and Dre’s lives, whether it’s more important to be optimistic or realistic, when protecting yourself and your family becomes sheltering. “Intersectionality” has become a bad word in some areas of the Internet, but this show was like a goddamn seminar in it.

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