Are we Laughing With or At Black-ish?
I watched Black-ish, yah, I liked it. I’ll give it another shot this week, but mainly because I’m still trying to figure it out; I am really conflicted about where it fits into TV landscape and moreover, where it fits within the small catalogue of shows centered around Black families. Since I watched it, I have been going back and forth (talking to myself, as I do), trying to position the show as EITHER positive or negative. What I’ve landed on is it is neither wholly positive or negative, and that is quite alright… for now.
So let’s get into it… Unlike The Huxtables, who rarely experienced racial issues, The Johnson’s bring their race to the forefront, it defines who they are and every line they say. The Huxtables were criticized for failing to take into account the context of the world outside of the four walls of their home. We never heard Cliff discus his role as an affluent black doctor, or Claire’s status as a black female working at a law firm. In the first episode of Black-ish, we already witnessed Andre being discriminated against at work as well as possibly being the product of affirmative action and Andre Jr’s desires to shed his black identity at school. I understand the humour in both of these storylines, I’m with it, yet, it is hard for me to ignore the context behind them; similar to The Cosbys, the Johnson’s portrayal could still be seen as distorting as other negative images prevalent because they are still exaggerated rather than ordinary, everyday human beings, some good, some bad, with others all along the spectrum. They are THE ONLY rich ones in the area, unlike the ones Andre left behind in his old neighbourhood and in that they are exaggerated. The fact that The Johnson’s are upper middle class is a positive for me as there must be diversity in images, however, the show is still a sitcom. A Situation-Comedy meant to make people laugh. It’s entertainment. The Johnson’s are diminished to clowns basically, those who laugh and get laughed at. The bottom line for me is that there are still no shows that deal with a black family seriously as serious people. In order to discuss black issues, we have to laugh and we have to relate; a bunch of funny light-skinned black people is still safe. Parody is a useful tool in popular culture where audiences can use laughter as a cathartic process that allows them to let off steam for 30 minutes, relieving themselves of the pressures of society (think John Stewart and Stephen Colbert). However, this only works when everyone is in the same state of carnivalesque understanding; we all have to be in on the joke. Maybe everyone is, I don’t know, but with the state of race relations in North America, my faith is weak and the fact that what makes Tracy Ellis Ross’s character black is her “hair and her ass” leads me to believe this show gives a pretty limited view of what it means to be black in the United States.
AT THE SAME TIME, I don’t think the shows with an all black cast should always be the ones assigned to deal with racism. Modern Family doesn’t have to deal with their portrayal of Gloria, nor does The Big Bang Theory have to answer questions about the narrowness of Raj. So with that in mind, I don’t know if I should be judging Black-ish so harshly. The concept of “meta,” where everything is an abstraction taken from something else, where everything plays off another concept is the key ingredient to appealing to a media literate audience these days. In that, I like Black-ish for being totally and completely aware of its own status as a show about a black family and not letting us forget that; we are forced to deal with the new family the moved in next door to the Dunphys. I appreciate the shows understanding of itself as the only one on the block. I think that’s funny. I think if audiences take the shows rarity as a sign for the larger lack of black images then Black-ish will have a point past filling a 30-minute void in people’s evenings.
I guess we will see what the future of The Johnson’s brings. Either way it will keep my brain occupied for the next little while.. stay tuned.