Black-ish: Almost, But Not Quite

So I get what Black-ish is trying to do, and I even see the rationale behind the way they’re trying to do it. After watching three episodes, here’s my take.

Pros:

  • Since the last time I remember seeing a TV show that wasn’t on BET and featured a predominantly black cast was two decades ago, I can’t help but appreciate the mere existence of this show.

  • Even though a lot of the storyline and humor is based on racial stereotypes, the ultimate message send to be that there are many different ways of being black and that our understanding of what that means for ourselves is constantly evolving, both of which are good messages.

Cons:

  • The stereotyping and caricatures of “blackness” really grate on my nerves. In thinking about it, I do realize that stereotyping is the basis for most of the humor in most the sitcoms I’ve ever watched. Maybe it’s unavoidable to some degree, but I feel like better comedy is able to draw on more complex and thoughtful sources of humor. And I’m not sure that the show is sophisticated/confident enough to reach the level of good satire where you can critique a stereotype by exaggerating it … so the caricatures are too easily interpreted as “oh, look how silly black people are” rather than “oh, look how silly our preconceptions of black people are.”

  • Much as I appreciate that the show is trying to directly address some of the complex realities of race in America, one of the problems with the concept of race in America is that it makes us think people whose skin color is different from ours are so utterly unlike that they can’t possibly share human experience with us. But while being black is an integral part of my lived reality, it isn’t the sum total of my life and my sense of self; I have many identities, and I spend less time consciously thinking about any of them than I do just trying to get through the basics of being human: caring for and feeding myself, being productive in the world, having decent relationships with the other people in my life. These are things I tend to have in common with a lot of people regardless of our respective races.  My favorite episode of the three so far was the one that dealt with the parents trying to get their kids to confide in them; it was nice to have the show step out from “Look at how BLACK families behave” and into “Look at this funny thing that many families (including black families) have to deal with.”

I do want to acknowledge that any show trying to take on the goals of this show would be critiqued no matter how they did it. The underlying reason for that had far less to do with the skills of the show creators and far more to do with the fact that we refuse to deal honestly with race in the real world of our national culture – as a result, any show that tries to deal with race is going to touch on the sensitive areas (a.k.a., festering open wounds) of how black people are (mis)characterized and (mis)treated every single day. We can and should be aware of and vigilant about the way people of color are portrayed in popular media and the consequences of those portrayals. I assume that the creators of Black-ish were hoping to prompt dialogue, and critique as well as admiration come with that.

I hope the show will settle into itself, and find a way to present family life through a lens that explicitly acknowledges race but is still natural enough to feel true to life. I think it is possible, although the show isn’t there yet. I don’t know if I personally will be watching, but I would not be unhappy to see it succeed.

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