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Growing up ‘Black-ish’: The show’s young stars reflect on its legacy

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This post contains spoilers for the series finale of “Black-ish.”

After eight seasons, “Black-ish” ended in bittersweet revelry Tuesday night as the Johnson family bid goodbye to their longtime home. Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), an ad executive, and his anesthesiologist wife, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), decided to leave Sherman Oaks in favor of one of Los Angeles’s wealthy Black neighborhoods. Dre’s parents, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) and Pops (Laurence Fishburne), prepared to travel the country in an RV. And with four of their five kids attending (or about to attend) college, Dre decided — in typical Dre fashion — to commemorate the moment in the Blackest way possible: a homegoing celebration complete with a glossy white casket and a brass band that paraded down the street.

The end of the groundbreaking ABC series is a particularly poignant milestone for the actors who play the oldest Johnson children, easily the most prominent Black sitcom kids of the past two decades: Yara Shahidi, who started on the show as cool teen Zoey and left to chronicle the character’s college years on the Freeform spinoff “Grownish”; Marcus Scribner, who plays Dre’s sweet and nerdy namesake, Junior; Marsai Martin as the wise-beyond-her-years Diane; and Miles Brown as Diane’s wide-eyed twin, Jack.

The “Black-ish” finale marked their transformations with a flashback to a surreal scene from the 2014 pilot in which the upper-middle-class Johnsons beam in front of their spacious single-family home. A passing tour guide tells her patrons to observe “the mythical and majestic Black family” to their left. “Out of their natural habitat and still thriving,” the tour guide notes. “Go ahead and wave. They’ll wave right back.”

Shahidi and Scribner, both 22, joined the show in their early teens. Martin and Brown, now 17, were paired together during auditions and became close friends on the set. When Lewis — whose decades-long career has spanned the Broadway stage, film and TV screens — joined “Black-ish” a few episodes in, young Martin knew her best as voodoo priestess Mama Odie in Disney’s “Princess and the Frog.” Martin recalled begging Lewis to do the animated character’s raspy drawl. “She did it multiple times, and I just felt so happy,” Martin said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Eight seasons on the Emmy-winning sitcom allowed Martin and Brown to observe veteran actors who became a second family to them. “My passion for acting grew because of Laurence and seeing how professionally he took his role,” Brown told The Post. Martin noticed early on that Ross “would stand up for herself and give out notes when she felt like she needed to.” Anderson, meanwhile, made a point of “knowing every single person on the set.” Their example “really gave me insight on how to move in the industry,” said Martin, who executive-produced the 2019 comedy “Little,” at 14 — becoming the youngest person to hold that title on a Hollywood film.

The Johnson kids have always been central to “Black-ish,” which materialized out of a conversation creator Kenya Barris had with actor and executive producer Anthony Anderson years ago at a Los Angeles restaurant. Barris, from Inglewood, and Anderson, from nearby Compton, had bonded over the shared experience of being far wealthier than their parents had ever been. There were ways in which the men could not relate to their children, who attended private school and spent swaths of their formative years with a Black president.

Barris and Anderson regularly mined their own lives, past and present, for laughs on “Black-ish.” One early episode finds Dre opening the doors to the Johnson family’s fridge, which — to his children’s horror — is bare aside from a small cluster of items. “This is what my refrigerator looked like when I was growing up,” Dre says. “It’s not empty — there are five meals in here. There’s a ketchup-baking soda sandwich. There’s a ketchup and bologna sandwich. And if you’re really feeling fancy, you got your ketchup-bologna-baking soda sandwich.”

“Black-ish,” the most visible Black family sitcom to premiere since the mid-aughts, generated buzz from the start with its pointed title and authentic references to Black culture. But the show found its heart in episodes that tackled serious topics — the use of the n-word and, in a pivotal Season 2 episode, police brutality — without sacrificing humor. “Black-ish’s” multigenerational perspective — Dre’s parents lived with the family — helped to enrich those conversations, which often spilled onto social media.

Brown said that several episodes from the show’s early seasons sparked conversations within his real-life family. That was certainly true of “Hope,” which aired in 2016, two months after a Cleveland grand jury declined to indict officers in the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. In the episode, it’s Jack who prompts a family discussion by asking why protesters “are so mad” in a scene inspired by a conversation Barris had with one of his sons. “I think that was the first time where my family really sat down and talked to me” about police violence against Black people, said Brown, who was 11 when the episode aired.

How ‘Blackish’ tackled police brutality while staying true to its roots

At a panel earlier this month at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the series is featured for its cultural relevance, Lewis said filming that episode marked one of her “hardest moments” on the ABC series because she saw her young co-stars “at that age, having to watch the police brutality on television … knowing that my mother had to suffer the same thing.”

For Shahidi, “Hope” was an opportunity to add layers to her character. “It’s the first time you see how deeply Zoey cares,” she said on the panel. “I feel like it taps on something generationally that so many of my peers were going through, in being a young Black person in the world and either feeling like you were going to breed such a deep sense of apathy and detachment for survival reasons, or you have to tap into the vulnerability in your support network.”

As the seasons went on, “Black-ish” covered more ground and took exciting risks. The Season 4 premiere took the form of a musical episode asserting Juneteenth should be a national holiday (years before it became one). The Johnsons shared their appreciation — or cluelessness, in the case of Jack and Diane — for Prince in the show’s 100th episode, which featured members of the family dressed as the late musical icon while lip-syncing his songs.

“Black-ish,” like its youngest stars, came of age in the social media era, which meant that both criticism and praise reverberated far and wide. So, too, did images from the show. Diane’s sardonic personality is captured for posterity in a famous GIF of Martin, with her hand on her chest and an incredulous look on her face.

Speaking on the panel, Martin said she was able to ad-lib as Diane even at a young age, helping to define a character who was rarely seen on TV, let alone in a primary role.

“Having me portray not only someone who is witty, mature and just an old soul in general, but yet has glasses on and wears a bonnet when she goes to sleep and really just tells it like it is at that age was just really cool,” Martin said.

Scribner praised the show’s writers for helping to make sure his character grew over the course of eight seasons.

“Our characters were able to evolve. They never stayed stagnant,” he said. “We were always learning as individuals and people in real life. But that also translated into the scripts that we received and the choices that we were able to make as actors. Our producers and writers invested a lot of trust in us.”

One example is a scene from last week’s episode, the penultimate of the series, which found Junior taking a “man trip” with his father and grandfather. Pops, introduced early on in the series as a man who struggled to express his love and admiration for his son, is seen crying by the fire. The moment leads to a conversation among the three men, with Pops sharing the story of the only time he ever saw his father cry. Scribner counts the episode among his favorites.

“I feel like Junior evolved as a character — not only him personally, but his relationship with the men he’s been looking up to his entire life: his father and his grandfather,” Scribner said to a panel audience that included his real-life father. “There was a beautiful moment of vulnerability, and they learned a lot about each other and they weren’t afraid to fully commit their hearts into that conversation.”

At the same event, Ross called being TV mom to Shahidi, Scribner, Martin and Brown “the honor of my life.” “You came to the show as beautiful, raw talent and became seasoned …” she said before trailing off and tearing up when she noticed Martin about to cry. Anderson, sounding every bit the proud dad, also had a message for his on-screen brood. “You’re marvelous,” he said. “Seeing you guys walk into that room not knowing what to expect from me, and for you to throw back everything at me that I threw at you, speaks tremendous volumes to who you are as artists,” he said. “And I recognized that in you from the moment that I met each and every one of you.”

The future looks bright for the Johnson kids, and the same can be said for the actors who embodied those groundbreaking roles. Scribner will join Shahidi on “Grownish,” Freeform recently announced ahead of the spinoff’s fifth season. Brown is working on launching his own production company — and hopes to one day fulfill fans’ dreams of seeing him play a live-action Miles Morales. And Martin is set to star in the Paramount Plus film “Fantasy Football,” which she is executive producing through her production company.

Martin told The Post that it’s “surreal” to think about the end of “Black-ish.” But she knows what it has meant to so many people, herself included. “It just makes you feel honored to be a part of something, honestly, so legendary and something that will last forever,” she said. “My kids’ kids will know about ‘Black-ish.’ ”

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