I’m gobsmacked. I have not seen a sitcom tackle a weighty topic like police brutality since A Different World, which was more than twenty years ago. But this week’s Black-ish dared, and I applaud Kenya Barris for it. The writer and showrunner confessed he’s “never been as afraid about an episode of television that I’ve written in my life.”
That fear, as the episode “Hope” shows, is well-founded. The Johnson family gathers around the television to hear the results of an alleged police brutality case that resulted in the death of an unarmed teenager. It sparks a discussion between the family, with the youngest members confused and wondering what everyone’s so upset about.
Although police brutality and institutional racism are the big topics, the episode really hinges upon whether to expose twins Jack and Diane (Miles Brown and Marsai Martin) to such unpleasant facts of the world. Mom Rainbow would rather keep her little ones in the dark so they can hold onto their innocence a little longer. Andre disagrees, particularly with his wife’s optimism about the justice system. They try Bow’s method, which falls apart when riots break out over the choice not to indict.
“Why are all these people so mad?” is the hard question that Jack so innocently asks. It’s straight from Barris’ own experience with his son during the TV coverage of Ferguson in 2014. What makes the episode great is the multi-generational discourse that ensues, from Junior (Marcus Schrieber) quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates to Andre’s Pops (guest star Laurence Fishburne) knowing nothing about the case at hand. He reasons he’s been hearing the same news story for decades because nothing changes.
The real gem, of course, is Anthony Anderson as patriarch Andre. Just give him an Emmy now. If you search “Blackish” on Twitter or Tumblr, there’s one particular scene you’ll see again and again in that tag. His monologue about Barack Obama’s inauguration was a powerful moment that I know resonates with viewers.
But for me it was Zoey’s breakdown and how the twins responded that made me lose it. “I know what I feel. And it’s….lost. This is my generation and these are kids our age. . . Honestly, I don’t even know what the point is sometimes. I just feel hopeless.”
Too often, Hope is treated like some higher-power faith. Like you’ve got to hold onto it no matter how much adversity you face. It’s a sentiment often spewed in Very Special Episodes of television, like Hope is the magical band-aid that will solve everything. It doesn’t. Which is part of the brilliant point Black-ish makes in this episode. Hope is something to strive for: not because it’s right, but because it can just as easily be taken away.