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Going Beyond Black and White
November 8, 2019  | By Monique Nazareth
 

Back in 2016, I wrote a piece for this site comparing television writer and producer Kenya Barris to the great Norman Lear. At the time, Barris' black-ish (on ABC) was addressing some of the most controversial issues like black people's relationship with the police, the election of Donald Trump, and various issues of racism in America in a way that no other show was doing. Three years later, Barris continues to impress, but now he has more to say and more ways to say it. ABC recently announced it had ordered a full season of the black-ish spinoff series mixed-ish, which is in its freshman run. According to the Hollywood Reporter, it currently ranks as broadcast television's number one new comedy among adults ages 18-49. In the meantime, Barris' other spinoff, grown-ish, will begin its third season on ABC's sister network, Freeform, in winter 2020.

For those yet unfamiliar with the show, black-ish focuses on an African American upper-middle-class family living in a predominantly white affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Andre "Dre" Johnson (Anthony Anderson, top) is an advertising executive who grew up in Compton. His wife Rainbow "Bow" Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross, top) is a doctor and the mixed-race daughter of hippies. The Johnsons live with four of their kids: adult son Junior (Marcus Scribner), tween twins, Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin), and a toddler son, Devante. Also living with them, Dre's divorced parents, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis). Their oldest daughter, Zoey (Yara Shahidi), is in college, and her experiences are featured in grown-ish.

The idea of having three generations of a family living together allows Barris to explore a lot of issues. For instance, this season, Junior and Jack had to teach their father and grandfather the appropriate way to treat women in the #MeToo era. In that same episode, Diane questioned whether her mother's white feminist friends understand the damaging effect of racism on the very issues they are fighting for.

Black-ish is, for the most part, Dre's story. Every episode is narrated by Dre, and many of them include flashbacks to his childhood. However, the episodes also give us glimpses into Bow's unusual upbringing with her parents, Paul (Beau Bridges) and Alicia (Anna Deveare Smith), as well as her two younger siblings, Johan and Santamonica (Daveed Diggs and Rashida Jones). Paul's sudden death at the end of Season 4 left an opening for a prequel, particularly as one Season 5 episode had Bow reflecting on the relationship she and her dad shared.

Mixed-ish is Bow's childhood story. Bow narrates it, but unlike Dre in black-ish, she's reflecting on the past, so she can stop the action like hitting the pause button on a VCR. Or she can even fast forwards through certain parts of the story if she chooses to.

In its freshman season, we learn that Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) and Alicia (Tika Sumpter) met at Berkeley Law School. But whereas he dropped out to protest "the glass ceiling of classism," Alicia stayed to get her law degree, because, as Bow points out, "Hippie or not, black people still needed a backup plan." The couple joined a multi-ethnic commune – or a cult – and along the way had three kids. When the cult is raided by the FBI, the family is forced back into reality and a rented home in a middle-class neighborhood. Paul's father, a wealthy conservative lawyer of questionable values (Gary Cole), pays for the home and gives Alicia a job in his firm. 12-year-old Bow and her siblings are sent to a public school for the first time, and they stand out. As Bow points out, mixed marriages weren't as common in the '80s as they are today, and therefore neither were mixed-race kids. This is very clear when a fellow student asks them, "What are you weirdos mixed with?"

By setting the show in the '80s, when people were not politically correct, Barris can tackle more issues of race, gender, and classism. For example, Alicia becomes a lawyer, while Paul is a stay-at-home dad. Having the wife be the breadwinner was highly uncommon in the '80s. Alicia is confronted with the stigma of affirmative action, and she is often seen as a token rather than a qualified professional. And Paul faces gender bias for being an unemployed white man.

Bow as the narrator connects the storylines back then to where we are today. For example, one episode focuses on race-based hair discrimination. Bow's teacher tells her that she expects "neat" hair for her school picture. The show explores the pressure put on black women and men over natural hair verses the Eurocentric standard. Bow tries straightening it, an expensive endeavor, but then doesn't know that keeping it straight requires special care. The episode ends by pointing out that this last summer, in 2019, this kind of racism was finally banned in California, which became the first state in the US to pass the Crown Act. That's an acronym for "Create A Respectful and Open Workplace for Natural Hair." It says rules prohibiting employees from having afros, braids, twists, and locks have a "disparate impact on black individuals."

Ross is an executive producer on the show and clearly includes her own experiences growing up mixed; her mother is Diana Ross and father, Robert Ellis Silberstein. There's even a picture of Diana in the opening sequence.

Mixed-ish doesn't yet have the humor of black-ish. Most of its humor comes from the secondary characters of Grandpa Harrison (Cole), young siblings Johan and Santamonica (Ethan William Childress and Mykal-Michelle Harris), and Aunt Denise (Christina Anthony). But it shows us something new and says a lot about how far we've come since the '80s and how much further we have to go.

Grown-ish is very different from either of the other two shows. It's Zoey's story and covers Generation Z. It allows Barris to explore college life with the struggles being less about race and more about the road to adulthood. Zoey's narration is even more real-time than Dre's, as she pauses to talk directly to the camera to tell the audience what's going on in her mind at that moment. Again, this spinoff lacks the humor of its parent show, black-ish, but it doesn't need it, thanks in large part to a great cast and good writing.

In fact, great casting and smart writing are what all three of these shows have in common. Through the Johnson family, Barris has been able to address many issues and give us multi-generational and even multi-ethnic points of view on them. And he's not stopping there. He's working on a new Netflix series with Rashida Jones, Black Excellence, reportedly inspired by his own life.

In 2017, Barris told Trevor Noah why he thinks black-ish has resonated with so many people: "I wanted this show to specifically be about a family, a black family. And in the specificity of that, I have found that that speaks much more to everyone than trying to speak to everybody."

And we'll keep watching and listening as long as he keeps on keeping it real-ish.
 
 
 
 
 
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