Black History Month 2016 was one for the record books.
Wednesday's episode of the hit sitcom Black-ish tackled the issue of police brutality, highlighting the difficulty parents face when explaining these cases to their young, curious children. It revolved around the Johnson family's reaction to high-profile case of a fatal encounter between a African-American teen and the police.
Entitled "Hope," the episode opens with Andre (Anthony Anderson) narrating over a montage of protests across world history (with Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" playing in the backdrop). The heads of the household Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre debate on how to explain this tragedy to their youngest children Diane and Jack. Rainbow wants to shield the kids from the cruelty of society. While trying to distract the little ones, she clings to optimism and cautions the rest of the family to allow the U.S. justice system to prevail ("I'm anti-police brutality, that doesn't mean I have to be anti-police).
Andre takes a more pragmatic approach, arguing that in order to survive, the children must be aware of what is going on ("They aren't just children, Bow. They're Black children! And they need to know the world they're living in.").
Throughout "Hope", the family gathers in their living room and watches news coverage on the incident (with cameo appearances by CNN's Don Lemon and writer Ta'Nehisi Coates). As they await the jury's decision, each gives their ideas towards the issue, highlighting differences in opinions, facts, and revealing generational divides. Jack, the youngest son, asked "why are these people so mad?" Junior nuances the arguments, while the grandfather criticizes the police as "thugs". The grandmother says "police in this country have a problem with Black folk." Bow still wants to preserve the children's innocence, while Dre continues to argue that the kids need "The Real".
After passionate debates, the family is upset when the predictable, yet still heart-breaking non-indictment is announced. The family then watches news coverage of protests and riots breaking out across the nation. Fearing for her brother's life, Zoey becomes teary-eyed as she pleads for her brother not to sneak off to a protest. The lawyer continues the press conference to decry the protests, calling them "anti-police", and mentioning that the victim "was no angel".
While watching this episode, it's fictional aspects seemed all too real. The pain, frustration, despair, and hope felt in by the family; the tragedy, followed by public outrage, the criminalization of the victim, and a nation left divided on whether or not justice was served. For the show's African-American audiences, this episode was a key moment in which popular art reflected their realities. Black-ish gave this pressing issue the intellectual and emotionally complexity it deserves.
"Unfortunately the things that we are dealing with in this episode are not new, especially to the black and brown community," Anderson said to Variety. "It's something that's been going on for quite some time.
One of the most poignant moments in the half-hour was when Dre teared up as he recalled watching President Barack Obama's first inauguration. He reminds her of the beaming joy and hope they felt seeing him walk out the presidential limo, but also recalls the gut fear that the nation's first African American president could be assassinated at any moment. He entreats Bow to remember that legitimate fear of hope being taken away from their community. But though the two parents ultimately agreed to disagree on the facts of Black life in America, they both felt the most important thing to was to make sure the kids still had this hope. In the end, they decide that they will go to the local protest as a family.
What made the episode beautiful, powerful, and heart-wrenching was even though they were discussing a fictional case, the family made explicit and implied references to the notable murders of LaQuan McDonald, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Freddie Gray, the church members in Charleston, and others. For Sandra Bland, they #SaidHerName.
True to the show's comedic impulse and the brilliance of its executive producer Kenya Barris, bites of comic relief were not only used to not only defuse tension, but also highlight the issues at hand. When Diane reads off a LA county statistic about police shootings of unarmed suspects, a befuddled Jack replies "the police are shooting people with no arms?!". And at one point, the family confuses the details of different high profile cases, one of the ways drawing attention to the frequency and quantity of these. During the episode, actress Yara Shahidi (Zoey) tweeted:
"Hope" illuminated the difficulties socially conscious parents have when informing their kids about an heated issue like police brutality.
How do you explain the concept of "structural racism" to an 8-year-old who doesn't "see" race? How do you explain to a Black child why they aren't allowed to play with toy guns? How do you instill in them the idea of that their generation can create a brighter future, but still make sure they are privy to America's long, bloody history? Do tell your children #BlackLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter? How do you show them that the world is "a whole lot of white, a whole lot of black, but mostly grey"?
Parents have a tough job already, but explaining issues like this to your kids is delicate dance. Black-ish tackled the problem with the passion, complexity, frankness, and finesse it deserved. It was a quintessential edutainment moment, using art to continue these ongoing discussions, and spark new ones.
Also, Marsai Martin (Diane) is freakin' adorable. It's disgusting.