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Black-ish: “Black Santa/White Christmas”

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“Black people can’t be racist!”

Like a lot of things in Black-ish’s short run, this is something I’ve heard more than once in my life, usually in the context of the mythical “reverse racism.” It’s fitting that Black-ish’s first season hiatus—despite really being about Christmas traditions new and old—would include such a “taboo” line like that. Funny is what Black-ish is but starting a conversation is still what it does.

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Of course, being Black-ish, that quote isn’t supposed to be taken as gospel. From the moment Dre’s mother Ruby (the returning Jenifer Lewis) says it (and Dre repeats it), it’s obvious how absurd it is to think that being an African-American gives you the ultimate race card, one that even frees you from racism from other minorities. It’s as ridiculous as when Dre’s boss first says he doesn’t see color, except in that instance, it’s immediately discredited as bull. When perpetual well-meaning blowhard Dre says that there is a hierarchy when it comes to the order in which minorities can achieve success—it goes black, Mexican, and then homosexual—especially when it comes to presidents or Santas, it’s not to be taken seriously (even though it’s a line of thinking that clearly exists to some in the real world).

After all, even though he’s got the laugh down, Dre still manages to be both “the worst black Santa” and “the worst Santa of any color.”

For all of Dre’s bravado, he really is just a big old teddy bear. Think about it: Most of his troubles come from wanting his family to just love each other and enjoy the things he does. He has shirtless talks with Junior about manhood. He does all he can to avoid spanking Jack. He was “Cupcake Dad.” It makes all the sense in the world that he would love a holiday that’s supposed to be as cheerful as Christmas, just as it does that he practically worships at the altar of Santa Claus. So when Dre’s company’s Santa Claus, Fred Garner, drops dead, Dre naturally goes into “Dre-mode” (tunnel vision and all) in order to take the spot as the company’s newer, blacker, Santa. That tunnel vision is what causes him to enlist the brain-trust of Charlie and Josh for help on his pitch and why he gets the chosen Santa, Human Resource’s Angelica Rodriguez (Ana Ortiz), off the assignment (even though it’s mostly her “Hey, hey, HEY!” approach to “Ho, ho, ho!” that loses it for her).

Because this is a Christmas episode of a sitcom (on ABC, no less), Dre does the improbable and delivers presents to all of the kids who didn’t get them because of his ultimate short-sightedness (and Angelica’s revenge). It’s a happy Christmas A-story that actually fits quite well with the B-story when the two intersect.

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That B-plot actually finds a better way to work with the antagonistic relationship between Ruby and Rainbow from “Oedipal Triangle.” Here, it’s the kids who are unknowingly pitting the women against each other. Even with the underlying competition between the two of them, Ruby concedes her annual Christmas Eve dinner to Rainbow (with barely a passive-aggressive peep), who wants to be the kids’ (and Dre’s) shining light this holiday season for once. While Dre’s approach to parenting is often one of not wanting the kids to grow old and tired of his and the family’s traditions, Rainbow’s is that of wanting to the glory of being a Super Mom without always thinking of the steps to get there.

Tracee Ellis Ross is at her best when Rainbow goes above and beyond the call of duty, and in this instance, it causes her to nickname herself “Momma” (“Who’s Momma?” “ME! I’m Momma!”) and become a beautiful tuxedo-wearing stage mom. “Oedipal Triangle” was all about how Dre loves his mother so much that it clouds his judgment and interferes with his marriage, but here, he barely even interacts with the woman except to agree about the whole racism hierarchy situation. So now it’s clear that the biggest problem Rainbow has is that no matter what she does, she’ll apparently always be in her mother-in-law’s shadow. That’s honestly a lot more compelling than the usual mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law, because Ruby doesn’t even need to overstep her bounds here. Instead, the kids do the work themselves, enjoying the novelty of Grandma Ruby while Rainbow just wants to prove that she can be “great” too.

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It works because the Johnson kids can be rather self-centered (and in little Jack’s case, it’s both a combination of that and being oblivious), so the fact that Dre and Rainbow go to the lengths they do to get their children’s attention on a regular basis makes all the sense in the world. Sure, it’s a sitcom, but one of the reasons Black-ish works so well is that it speaks a lot of truth about life and families. To briefly compare it to its lead-in Modern Family for a moment, while both shows focus on two rather wealthy families (regardless of race), the Johnsons never really feel as obscenely wealthy and out-of-touch with the “real world” as the Dunphy-Pritchett-Delgado family does. Also, the plots in Black-ish have yet feel too far-fetched or unrelatable when it comes to the audience putting themselves in the same shoes. This can also be symptomatic of the one season versus six seasons discrepancy, but even during that first season of Modern Family, I never felt as connected to it as I do to Black-ish. It’s not just a race thing; it’s a real person living in the world thing.

Of course, Rainbow really has nothing to truly be jealous of, because Ruby’s “great” Christmas Eve dinner that she can’t compare with turns out take out (from Mexicans, even). Then, one of the non-tuxedo-related highlights of the episodes comes in the form of the montage in which the two of them team up to “sell the lie” of actually making a home-cooked meal (set to the kids’ auto-tuned Christmas performance), right down to Ruby putting onions near Rainbow’s eyes so she cries. Black-ish has a style all of its own because it’s willing to make choices just like that. That’s what separates it from other sitcoms on right now, and that’s what makes it a winner.

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Merry Christmas, Black-ish. May Black Santa bless you with way too many presents.

Stray observations:

  • As much as I love Black-ish and this episode, I’m still not sure it’s hit its peak. So luckily, your regularly scheduled reviewer, Pilot Viruet, didn’t pass the torch to me this week just for the episode to get the Fergie Bump (I’m trying something new, just go with it).
  • Welcome to Black-ish, Ana Ortiz! So glad Devious Maids didn’t keep you from stopping by. According to IMDB, it looks like you might be coming back!
  • The kids really are in service to the adults’ plot this episode, but that’s not necessary a bad thing. Zoey’s “Mom fail. Worldstar!” reaction to Rainbow’s “brining accident” is the child line MVP for me this week, followed by the kids wanting Ruby to put them in the oven. Sometimes I worry about these kids.
  • Thanks to Dre’s tunnel vision, the first time Rainbow brought up the whole Christmas Eve dinner situation, all of her words sounded like “Santa.” That sounds about right.
  • Ruby: “If I didn’t know you were mixed, I’d swear you were Chinese.” That’s supposed to prove how hard Ruby thinks Rainbow is on the kids. Who says that? It’s amazing. Hopefully one day Ruby and Pops will share a scene together.
  • Josh: “We got yo back playa. Bros before—”
    Dre: “Get out.”
  • Charlie (scarring children for life): “My main man, Santa [BLEEP] Claus!”
  • “Dennis Haysbert in 24!” As far a black presidents go, Dre’s not wrong to call him an important one.
  • I’m not mixed, but both of my younger siblings are, and I’m aware of the struggles they’ve faced by not being quite black or white. I honestly can’t wait until the show goes deeper into Rainbow’s own personal experiences as such, even though I still laughed when Ruby talked about her “swirly parents” who were in a cult.
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