“Please, Baby, Please,” which Barris co-wrote and directed, opens fittingly with the soulful voice of Sam Cooke: “It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know, a change is gonna come.” The episode follows a restless night in the Johnson household as Dre (Anthony Anderson) confronts his concerns about various issues affecting the country while trying to soothe his infant son, Devante. As a storm rages outside, he reads the 2002 children’s book (written by filmmaker Spike Lee and his wife, producer Tonya Lewis Lee) that inspired the episode title.
As Devante cries, Dre tells his son that he’s also scared but not of the thunder outside. “Everything’s so crazy right now,” Dre says. He channels his anxiety into another bedtime story for Devante. “You see what feels like a long, long time ago, but really was just a year ago, America got a new boss,” Dre begins. “Let’s call him ‘the Shady King.' ” It’s a thinly veiled reference to President Trump, who appears on-screen in footage from his inauguration. Dre tells Devante that he (along with comedian Dave Chappelle) tried to give the Shady King a chance, but he was “even scarier than Daddy could ever imagine.”
“This sucker wanted to build a wall between us and our neighbors. He seemed to have private meetings with our enemies,” Dre explained. “And when it came to his subjects, some thought the Shady King appeared to be out of touch with what they needed. And some people felt he cared more about trophies than his subjects.” Dre’s wife, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross), is sleeping for most of the episode but cautions Dre against further “scaring” their son. “He has his entire life to be afraid,” she says before raising her own fears about gun violence. “Places that used to be safe aren’t even safe anymore.”
In his Instagram post Monday, Barris said he asked ABC’s parent company Walt Disney Television to consider releasing the episode after the network re-aired and promoted several “Blackish” episodes amid nationwide protests against racial inequality. “Recognizing the importance of this moment, they listened and agreed,” he wrote.
Two years ago, after ABC abruptly pulled the episode from the show’s fourth season schedule, Variety reported that “Please, Baby, Please” had been indefinitely shelved by the network, which cited “creative differences.” Barris also gave that vague but industry-standard explanation, telling the magazine that “neither ABC nor I were happy with the direction of the episode and mutually agreed not to air it.”
Barris left the network several months later, and moved on to Netflix in a deal news reports valued at $100 million. He later confirmed in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that the battle over “Please, Baby, Please” had effectively soured his relationship with the network: “I don’t know that I would have been as useful to them as they’d need me to be after that.”
ABC’s decision to pull the episode angered several cast members, including the show’s leads. Ross, who won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Bow, told THR the network’s actions were “frightening.” Anderson, also an executive producer on the show, lamented that ABC opted not to air the episode after having signed off on its script. “I don’t know what those conversations were, but we entered into this partnership with the understanding that we would be able to tell the stories that we wanted to tell,” Anderson said.
The magazine reported that Barris battled for weeks with ABC execs “as high up” as then-CEO Bob Iger, “who called Barris from home, sick with laryngitis, and, per two sources, had a reasoned conversation with the showrunner about the political sensitivities of being a broadcast network in 2018.”
As the article noted, ABC’s decision was particularly alienating because the network had made no secret of its desire to appeal to red-state voters. Earlier that year, the network’s popular “Roseanne” reboot had received flak for a joke referencing “shows about Black and Asian families,” which many perceived to be a shot at “Blackish” and “Fresh Off the Boat.” (Two months later, Roseanne Barr was fired from her namesake sitcom after unleashing a racist rant on Twitter.)
Though “Please, Baby, Please” clearly takes issue with Trump and his administration — and introduces one “Prince Barry” as a heroic figure — there is nuance to the conversations within the episode. (It’s unclear whether any changes were made to the original episode; a representative for ABC referred to Barris’s statement in response to questions from The Washington Post.) Dre’s restlessness eventually takes him to the kitchen, where his father, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), is pondering similar concerns. He recalls seeing the Ku Klux Klan march in white robes as a child. “But, hell, at least those cowards were too scared to show their faces,” he says. “Now these bigots are marching around here with their own camera crews.” The episode flashes to images from the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. “When did they become so bold?” Pops asks.
Dre suggests that white nationalists have used the notion of “white pride” to appeal to people who aren’t “card-carrying Klan members.” But, he asks his father, “who are we to tell people they can’t have pride in their heritage?” When Dre makes a reference to James Brown’s 1968 classic “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud,” Pops points out that the song was a civil rights anthem made in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and growing disillusionment over the Vietnam War. “The people needed to hear something that was going to give them hope. And James Brown said it,” he says. “It was lyrical emancipation.”
“Pride — it implies that you have overcome adversity,” Pops continues. “So if you’re Black or Brown or gay or a woman — or a Clippers fan, you have endured the struggle.”
The NFL protests over police brutality, widely reported to be a major theme of the episode, don’t even come up — aside from a few images of Colin Kaepernick and signs supporting the quarterback turned activist — until 15 minutes in, when Dre’s eldest son, Junior (Marcus Scribner), tells his father he’s torn about his high school’s plan to suspend any student athlete who takes a knee during the national anthem.
“Black athletes using their platform to fight social injustice did not start with Colin Kaepernick,” Dre tells his son. “Muhammed Ali went to jail, lost his title and almost went broke protesting the Vietnam War. Arthur Ashe, arrested on two different occasions, fighting for human rights. Tommie Smith, John Carlos got blackballed for taking the biggest moment of their lives and making it into something bigger than them.
“These men took careers that they trained and worked their entire lives for and put them on the line for us,” Dre tells Junior. “Does that mean anything to you?"
“Of course it does,” Junior says. “But honestly, Dad, I’m just not sure I agree with the kneeling thing. I don’t even know what good it does, especially when people say that it offends the troops. I mean, they put their lives on the line every day for our country."
“This is not about the troops,” Dre counters. “It’s about police brutality.”
Ultimately, “Please, Baby, Please” centers on Dre grappling with how to explain complicated issues to his children. In that way, the episode follows the tradition of “Hope,” the sitcom’s groundbreaking episode about police brutality, and “Juneteenth,” which made the case for celebrating the day enslaved Black people in Texas finally learned they were free — years before the holiday became a national talking point.
And like those episodes, “Please, Baby, Please” ends on a hopeful note.
“I know you’re scared, but there’s one thing that I realized: No matter how bad it gets, we’ll get through it,” Dre tells Devante. “Just like this storm, it’ll rattle and shake and rain, but tomorrow or maybe the next day, it will stop, and the sun will come up. But don’t worry, until that happens, I’ll be here holding you.
“That’s the thing with our country. We’ve gone through a lot,” Dre adds. “But even when it’s darkest, we help each other out. Nobody knows exactly what the future will bring. But what we do know is there are more of us who help than those who hurt. And no matter how bad the storm gets, we’ll be here for each other.”