“I have never been as afraid about an episode of television that I’ve written in my life,” “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris said in a phone interview ahead of Wednesday’s episode, which deals with police brutality.
The episode, titled “Hope,” finds the Johnson family watching news coverage of a case involving an African American teenager. They grapple with how to talk to the family’s youngest members — twins Jack and Diane — about the community reaction to the case and others like it.
Barris said that while he believes police brutality is an important issue, the crux of the episode is the challenge of talking to young children about difficult topics to which they’re constantly exposed. Barris began thinking about the episode in 2014 as he and his family watched coverage of a Ferguson grand jury declining to indict a police officer for shooting an unarmed black teenager.
“Why are all these people so mad?” Barris recalls his then 7-year-old son asking. In “Blackish,” that line is said verbatim by a wide-eyed Jack as erupting protests are shown across the upper-middle-class family’s big-screen television.
“I didn’t want to change or skew [my son’s] point of view because he has to grow up in this world,” Barris said. “I spoke to a lot of people that I know, other parents… and friends and that was an issue that — whether it had been about police brutality or whatever — a lot of parents are having to go through right now.”
“Blackish” isn’t the first show to tackle issues of police violence: “Law and Order: SVU” and “Scandal” have both told stories about police-involved shootings. NBC sitcom “The Carmichael Show” discussed “Black Lives Matter” in an episode called “Protest.” Barris clarified that “Hope” “is not a Black Lives Matter episode.” “I’m supportive of that movement,” he said. “My personal politics are not part of this particular episode. I don’t want to ostracize anyone or limit anyone’s entry point into enjoying this.”
“Hope,” which takes place entirely in the Johnson house, is exactly the type of multigenerational conversation that has made previous episodes of “Blackish,” now in its second season, stand out amid the current sitcom line-up. The show memorably confronted the n-word (and who is at liberty to say it) in its season premiere last year, and has dealt deftly with the subject of racial identity and parenting quandaries, including the ethics of spanking. Barris has said that he’s drawn inspiration from Norman Lear, who is well known for incorporating societal issues into his 1970s sitcoms.
In Wednesday’s episode, Dre (Anthony Anderson) and his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) have varying viewpoints about how much they should tell the twins about the case. Dre argues that they should tell the twins “the truth” and says “they’re not just children, they’re black children.”
“I’m not ready for them to think and see the world the way that you do,” Rainbow replies.
Also wading into the debate are Dre’s delightfully blunt parents, Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis). “I’m old enough to know when I’m hearing the same story told a different way,” Pops says. “Police beating up on an unarmed black man. That’s a story I’ve been hearing all my life.” In flashbacks, Dre recalls his parents dodging sensitive subjects altogether or addressing them in vaguely horrifying ways. (In one memorable scene, his mother holds up a fork and knife in response to Dre asking who Jeffrey Dahmer is).
The conversation gets even more nuance from the Johnsons’ two teenagers, Junior and Zoey. In a conversation with his grandfather, Junior points out some of the facts of the case that Pops has ignored, and shares wisdom from his latest read, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me.” Zoey’s involvement in the family discussion is a bit more subdued — she tries to get out of watching the news at first and seems more interested in texting her friends, but later confesses that she’s (mostly) been texting about the case and that she feels “hopeless.”
The discussion around “Blackish’s” fictional case invokes actual events, through both images and dialogue. In one exchange, the family has a telling back-and-forth about just which case this is (not the one in Chicago or the one in New York or the one in Charleston). Barris notes that while he was writing the episode in December, a Cleveland grand jury announced they would not indict officers in the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“It really sort of put an impact and effect on the words that I was putting into the script and also the feeling behind it,” Barris said. “That, for me, was just such a tragedy.”
It’s an emotional episode. Dre has tears in his eyes during one of the most powerful moments, which involves a conversation about a fear that he, Rainbow and others had during President Obama’s inauguration. But it doesn’t betray the show’s comedic heart, which ranges from Ruby snarkily referring to her biracial daughter-in-law as Rae Dawn Chong to Dre admitting that he believes chewing gum takes seven years to digest.
Ultimately, Barris said he wants the episode to get people talking.
“I want people to honestly just start a conversation within their homes, with their friends, with people at their school,” he said. “And laugh. I hope there’s enough humor in there to make people laugh.”