“Black-ish tells stories the way they should be told—in fragments of truth, scattered across multiple characters rather than feeding one big, overarching narrative meant to represent every black American.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-3
Creator: Kenya Barris 👨🏾🇺🇸
Writers: Kenya Barris 👨🏾🇺🇸 (72 eps), Njeri Brown 👩🏾🇺🇸 (36 eps), Lisa McQuillan 👩🏽🇺🇸 (36 eps), Devanshi Patel 👩🏽🇺🇸 (24 eps), Damilare Sonoiki 👨🏾🇳🇬🇺🇸 (24 eps), Yamara Taylor 👩🏽🇺🇸 (24 eps), and various (12 ♂ and 9 ♀ including POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
ABC’s Black-ish astounds me with its consistency. For a multi-season comedy, it somehow manages to be warm, funny, and fresh in nearly every episode. Unlike many family shows, Black-ish is seldom sappy, cutting through its sweet interior with great writing and strong comedic timing from its actors, particularly from Tracee Ellis Ross in her role as Rainbow whose facial expressions and line deliveries never fail to get a giggle out of me.
My only disclaimer is that this show anchors itself to a formulaic setup. Many of the storylines and characters feel familiar, especially among the kids. For example, Yara Shahidi in her role as Zoey is a generic portrait of the teenage daughter, stuck on her phone all day and obsessed with appearances. Still, I wouldn’t call Black-ish redundant; it simply feels cautious in order to appeal to broad swathes of this country. When you try and please everyone it’s harder to be immediately great. Other comedies on the market right now, like Master of None or Atlanta, are bringing unexplored racial perspectives (as Black-ish does) alongside exciting experimentation with narrative structure and stunning cinematography.
Family sitcoms made for network television tend to find their greatness in longevity and cultural impact. I’d say Black-ish is on its way, but for now its familiar structure will drop this score half a point.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Black-ish sees strong numbers of female characters. Rainbow (the matriarch), Ruby (the mother-in-law played by Jenifer Lewis), Zoey (the daughter), and Diane (the younger daughter played by Marsai Martin) are all main characters with plenty of screen time. By complexity women also do well, matching the men in depth. (The adults are more well-rounded while the kids stick to their archetypes of fashionista, geek, diabolical smart kid, and endearingly dumb kid.)
However, we do see some gender norms. I appreciate that Rainbow (‘Bow’ for short) is a doctor but her characterization is shaped by her role as a mother, especially in Season 3 during her pregnancy story arc. We see her husband Dre (Anthony Anderson) at the office exponentially more often than we see Bow working at the hospital. And although she is often wearing scrubs, which feels forced as if to constantly remind us of her career, Bow is primarily depicted in the kitchen cooking and caring for her children. Dre's children are his primary concern as well, but through scenes that take place outside the home as well as flashbacks, he feels more mobile and well-rounded than his wife does.
This one’s a doozy. Black-ish comes from the gut, drawing on Barris’ own life experiences. He explains to People, “The seed of the show came from my own family” and that authenticity comes across in spades, opening up frank portrayals of black Americans that cross generations, personality types, and income levels. (Though it feels pertinent to mention that we don't see wide variance in skin tone—due to the mixed-race stories being told, the vast majority of black characters on the show are light-skinned.) Even still, Black-ish tells the way they should be told—in fragments of truth, scattered across multiple characters rather than one big, overarching narrative that is meant to represent every black American.
My only rhetorical question for this show is that if it’s set in Southern California, where the scenes are filmed (with in-show references to Malibu and other regional spots), where are the other people of color? SoCal is decidedly diverse and while I love having such a strong focus on black culture and see no fault in this method of storytelling, it makes me wonder why characters outside of the Johnsons are nearly always white. When I scroll through the IMDB cast list, it takes me all the way down to single-episode credits to find any Hispanic or Asian names. Shahidi, who plays Zoey, can arguably be part Asian (she is half Iranian) but her character is mixed-race black.
Maybe it’s a matter of what neighborhood the Johnsons live in? I took a look at Census data for Los Angeles but even among higher income brackets, we see noticeable Hispanic and Asian populations.
For example, the whitest neighborhood in Los Angeles is Hidden Hills, at 89.7% white and a median household income of $234,400. (This is in line with the Johnsons, where Dre works in advertising and Bow’s occupation as an anesthesiologist earns a median salary of $410,000 alone in Los Angeles). In Hidden Hills, Hispanics see 6.2% of the population, Asians 2.9%, and there are literally 0 black individuals among roughly 1,500 residents. Yikes.
If we move 10 spots down in the ranking of whiteness to a neighborhood with a much larger population, we come to Newport Beach which is 81.6% white, 8.3% Hispanic, 6.9% Asian, and 0.7% black.
A final stress test is to look at the Los Angeles neighborhood with the highest share of households earning over $100,000. (Because those Johnsons make bank.) Rolling Hills is 68.0% white, 20.1% Asian, 5.0% mixed, 4.4% Hispanic, and 2.1% black.
As you can see, if Black-ish is indeed set in Southern California, we should probably be seeing a few more Hispanic or Asian faces outside of the family. Perhaps we’ll find more ethnic diversity in Shahidi’s spinoff series, Grown-ish.
The show does not cover too many LGBTQ themes, but I like the story arc of a close family member, Dre’s sister, who is a lesbian. Played by Raven-Symoné, Rhonda goes through the process of coming out to her God-fearing mother and getting past major awkwardness with her brother Dre as she introduces her fiancee to the family. While Rhonda only appears in 3 episodes out of 72, their handling of her relationship is mature and thoughtful.
Bonus for Age: +0.50
The integral roles of Dre’s parents, Laurence Fishburne as Pops and Jenifer Lewis as Ruby, is a welcome insight into an inter-generational household. Pops and Ruby live full, exciting lives complete with sexcapades, health issues, and snarky remarks about how things “used to be.” The tension between having a built-in support system for Bow and Dre and the stymieing that can come with it is awesome to see played out onscreen. And while we rarely see Pops or Ruby outside of the interior set, they successfully deliver refreshing perspectives to the otherwise upper-middle class world the Johnsons inhabit.
Mediaversity Grade: A- 4.56/5
Black-ish is modern television, easy as that. By bringing people of color to the creators’ table, we benefit from fun, untold stories that come from a place of clear authenticity with nuances that ring like a bell. Velveeta as the secret ingredient in mac n cheese? Wanting to jump up and do a happy dance when a homicide perpetrator turns out not to be the same ethnicity as you? These are all details that could only come from real, lived experiences. And Black-ish brings it to the rest of America in a neat, digestible package.
That may be its only drawback—that it’s a little too neat, a little too comfortable. But in an age where dissent, violence, and sensationalism rains down like it’s monsoon season, I’m happy to slide a little bit towards the middle in favor of finding even just a half hour where a plurality of Americans can agree on something.
In short, Black-ish is my happy place. And with its 4-season run (and counting), I suspect I’m not its only fan.