“There’s been the diffusion of black culture to everyone else,” Kenya Barris, the creator of the family sitcom “Black-ish,” which premiered on ABC last night, “and there’s been a diffusion of black culture from black culture.” His collaborator, writer Larry Wilmore, took the idea further when the three of us spoke about the show in Los Angeles in July.
“One of my favorite lines that Kenya wrote in the pilot, is the white kid is at [the black family’s house], and he’s looking for grape soda, and it’s like ‘Why would you assume–‘ and he’s like ‘Found it!'” Wilmore explained. “That’s kind of our relationship with appropriation. ‘How come white people can’t appreciate our thing?’ ‘Oh, they’re appreciating our thing. How dare they take it away?'”
The tensions the two men are describing are what made “Black-ish” the best new comedy pilot of the fall television season, and what have the potential to make it a show with an importance beyond pure entertainment value.
The series focuses on an upwardly-mobile black Los Angeles family, headed by Andre (Anthony Anderson), an advertising executive, his doctor wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Andre’s father (Laurence Fishburne) and their four children. Andre appreciates the opportunities that are open to him, including a nice home and a possible promotion at his firm, but when “Black-ish” begins, he is also gravely concerned that his kids are drifting from his own sense of what it means to be black, in part because they have grown up in such relative comfort.
“Early America was your immigrants assimilating into what was thought of as American, but really was Anglo-American. They didn’t want anything to do with Eastern Europeans, so you had to be Anglo-American to be considered a real American,” Wilmore, who is working on the first twelve episodes of “Black-ish” before turning his attention to his upcoming Comedy Central show, “The Minority Report,” which will fill the slot vacated by Stephen Colbert. “So it’s funny how every group, everybody’s had that type of thing where there’s something gained, something lost.”
But the tension Andre is feeling does not simply play out in his own family, where he and Rainbow–who is mixed-race–have radically different perspectives on everything from their own children’s choice of sports and attraction to Judaism to an ongoing disagreement about whether O.J. Simpson is actually guilty. Instead, the great insight of “Black-ish” is that everyone has a relationship to black culture now, as well as to issues of class and gender, and that there is great comedy and great insight to be mined in looking at the fine-grained differences in the perspectives everyone brings to blackness (and whiteness), family life and money.
Or, as Barris put it: “Culture and class are our themes, but it’s really about having a family show that’s talking about something…So much of that has been lost to zaniness. But true comedy does come from having a point of view and a perspective.”
For Andre, class may prove to be as significant as race. In a bitingly funny scene in the pilot, a Hollywood tour guide conducts a group past Andre’s house, telling her customers “if you look to your left, you’ll see the mythical and majestic black family, out of their natural habitat, and yet still thriving!”
Having money “makes him feel conspicuous,” explained Wilmore, offering up his own experience as an example. “During the  riots, I happened to be moving from Brentwood to Hancock Park. I was just starting in television. I had my old Celica, this like, 1979 Celica, and I had boxes of my stuff, camcorder, stuff like that, as if I had been looting…This is my stuff, and I started feeling guilty…I thought, what if somebody stops me! It’s this weird feeling, it was very bizarre.”
“You look around right now, and it’s us, it’s me and Larry,” Barris agreed, pointing out the whiteness of the hotel bar where we were talking. “I got a head nod from the brother working here,” Wilmore joked.
“That premise is a great starting point for a lot of different conversations,” Barris suggested, pointing out that the combination of race and class in a single perspective can produce new comedic insights about both. “We are a culture that came from, in this country, nothing. We were enslaved. There is a sort of part of us, within some us, that wants to makes sure you know we’re not. And that’s where the flashiness comes from. I know for myself, I want to make sure you know this is who I am.”
And it is not only black characters who have relationships to black culture, or views of the world that are inflected by race, gender and class simultaneously. At work, Andre sorts co-workers into the “honorary brother” category, which includes his assistant, who knows how to code-switch without assuming that Andre only speaks Ebonics, and “not an honorary brother,” a title handed out to a fellow ad man who turns to Andre for advice on pressing questions such as “We want to know how you think a black guy would say good morning.”
(When Andre lands his promotion, it turns out to be as head of the firm’s new urban decision, a bump upward that carries with it the sting of an insult.)
“It all comes down to authenticity,” Barris said. “You can be someone who embraces the culture from an authentic love.” “And you can tell the difference “when someone does not, Wilmore chimed in. “I love code-switching. Even [President] Obama code-switches. Hillary [Clinton] got in trouble for doing it because she was doing it more down South,” to make covert appeals to white voters. “Oprah has made a career of code-switching!” Barris added.
“Sometimes I feel sorry for white people, because they don’t know what to say when they’re around us,” Wilmore explained. “And I love making them feel like they said the wrong thing. There’s nothing more fun. But yeah, that’s going to be a fun place to play.”
“Black-ish” is not the only show on ABC’s schedule this fall and winter that brings a jeweler’s loupe to the intersections of race, class and gender. Network president Paul Lee told critics at the Television Critics Association press tour in July that comedies like “Black-ish,” “Cristela,” about a Latina law student and her family, and “Fresh Off the Boat,” which looks at an immigrant Chinese family, as well as dramas like “American Crime” and “How To Get Away With Murder” are part of a larger approach of soliciting creators’ passion projects.
“I believe is that approach of approaching great storytellers and getting them to bring us their stories sort of unleashed for us a creative vein that was unmissable,” Lee said of his line-up. “We embrace it. We love having a diverse slate, but we think these shows are deeply relatable. I mean, when I watch ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ or when I watch ‘Black-ish’ or when I watch ‘Cristela,’ I am one of those families.” (Lee is himself an immigrant.)
For Wilmore and Barris, the increase in shows with black leads is long overdue. “CBS hasn’t had a black show since they tried that Cosby show 12 years ago,” Barris told me. And Wilmore told critics bluntly that the siphoning of black shows from the big broadcast networks to subsidiaries like the WB and UPN was a form of segregation: “I called it the Negro Leagues.”
What is exciting about this moment for them is not simply the return of black voices and black characters to the broadcast airwaves, but that other new perspectives are coming with them.
“I think there are new groups out there that are some fresh voices we haven’t had a chance to see,” Wilmore said, pointing to “Cristela” and “Fresh Off The Boat.” “Black-ish” has two Indian-American writers on staff as well as high proportions of African-American and female writers, and “that’s a new voice you’re seeing. There’s a lot of other types of voices that are coming up in television, because the viewership has gone down at the networks. It’s like ‘I guess we’ve got to try that.'”
“ABC is the American Broadcasting Corporation,” Barris said. “And this is the story of America in a nutshell.”