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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Black-ish tackles police brutality with wit and wisdom in a standout episode

Illustration for article titled Black-ish tackles police brutality with wit and wisdom in a standout episode
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“Hope” is an episode that Black-ish was built for. It’s an episode that was always building because it’s an episode that Black-ish simply has to do. Black-ish is primarily a show about seeing the world and the world’s injustices through the eyes of a black/mixed race family. And if you’re black, then police brutality, systemic racism, and the always-increasing number of black deaths at the hands of police officers is a part of your world and a part of your life. There was never any question that Black-ish would hedge an episode on this heavy topic; it was only a question of how it would handle it.

The details of the deceased, McQuillian, are not important because McQuillian represents every black body lying on the street, slumped in the back of a police car, found dead in a jail cell. The episode begins after his death as (most of) the Johnson family await the news of whether or not the police officer involved will be indicted. It’s the way black families watch television in 2016: piled onto a couch staring at the news coverage. There’s something so heartbreakingly telling about the way that the Johnsons struggle to detail the specifics of the overwhelming amount of similar cases; there are too many to count, too many to keep straight. It’s also heartbreakingly true; recently, a friend and I found ourselves struggling to remember the name of a particular murdered-by-police death and kept reeling off various names until we finally got it. As Pops and Dre know, police beating up on an unarmed black man isn’t a new story. It’s been happening forever—the “only thing new is that people are recording.”

As expected, the family finds themselves on different sides, with different reactions, and different opinions. Dre says “the police are damn thugs” while Bow chimes in with “not all police!” (Dre concedes that only 92 percent are; the other 8 percent are advisors on Law & Order.) Andre claims to have a more nuanced view: He knows that the police have a place in society but he’s always aware of how they abuse their power. Zoey, true to her character, seems generally uninterested in anything outside of her phone. Pops and Ruby—from different eras of the same shit, but also with firehoses and dogs—know what’s up. Jack and Diane are confused and oblivious because their parents can’t decide if or how to tell them. It’s a common debate within black families: When do you have “the talk” with your children? When do you tell them about the harm they face because their skin is darker? When do you tell them what to do if they’re pulled over by the police (Ruby knows the important words: Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you, sir.)? When do you tell them that they could do everything right and sometimes it still won’t matter?

Bow doesn’t want to introduce Jack and Diane to how cruel and unfair the world can be because they’re children. Dre believes that the twins need to know because they’re black children. But that’s all null and void because—in a great and funny moment—the twins overhear everything because they are sitting only a few feet away from the yelling adults. “Kids are dying?” “We’re kids!”

As the family discusses and debates, the news rolls on. We learn that the cop will not be indicted—surprise! We learn that there is protesting happening (prompting Ruby to go into riot-preparation mode). We even get the nail-in-the-coffin statement that the victim was “no angel,” reflecting how the media can quickly ”turn” on a murdered kid by talking up his flaws or mistakes as a screwed up way to justify the police officer’s or officers’ actions.

Even as the episode keeps the humor going—Jack is absolutely perfect this episode: “Of course he didn’t have a weapon! He had no arms!” and Ruby’s insistence on securing entrances and making everyone eat plain white rice—it manages to take the time to tackle the heavier stuff without breaking its stride. There are discussions about how we should have faith in the justice system, prompting Dre to exclaim, “When has it ever worked for us? When do we ever get a win?” (Bow’s O.J. Simpson response was a big laugh.) Dre explains that Bow’s instruction to “make sure you live to fight your case in court” doesn’t even mean anything because you’re still not safe in the police car (Freddie Grey) or jail (Sandra Bland). “Hope” shows off the intelligence and commitment of Black-ish’s writers room and how they refuse to pull punches on this topic. They drop names and statistics. They get Ta-Nehisi Coates. They explore all the sides. They write explicit lines like, “Kids are dying in the street” and “The system is rigged against us.” They make Dre and Bow’s polarizing viewpoints—a staple in the show, which often results in multiple scenes of watching a couple squabble—seem necessary and 100 percent compelling here.


And then they bring up President Obama’s inauguration.

One of the reasons I fell so hard for Black-ish was because it was depicting elements of black culture that I hadn’t really seen on television, because it was inserting music cues that you wouldn’t get anywhere else, because it was name-dropping the black cultural leaders that other shows weren’t (tonight: Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates). Of course, you pick any current television series out of a hat and they’ve probably mentioned Obama at some point, but this was entirely different. This was so hyper-specific and so achingly real, perfectly capturing the up and down emotions we—black people—had. “Remember when he got elected and we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and maybe to a good place? That the whole country was really ready to turn the corner?” Dre asks, referencing the elation and optimism of seeing our brown skin—the skin that we’ve been punished, beaten, enslaved, and murdered because of—seeing that same skin on the goddamn President of the United States. But then he references the downside, the way in which our joy can so quickly turn to fear or (rightful) paranoia because that’s what history has taught us. “We saw him get out of that limo and walk alongside of it and wave to the crowd. Tell me that you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me that you weren’t worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do.” In that scene, Black-ish articulated something that I felt during the inauguration—this overwhelming fear that something would happen to Obama because that horror and fear is ingrained in my DNA—that I had never said out loud, let alone seen reflected on a Wednesday night ABC sitcom.


In “Hope,” there is no explicit conclusion because there is no conclusion to this ongoing problem in real life. It ends with them going to join the protest together, in solidarity with each other and in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters. It ends with the only thing this black family—this black community—knows what to do: stay together and love each other fiercely.

So, yes, I am entirely biased when it comes to this episode. There is no way I would grade it anything but an A. There was no expectation that I would watch it without crying, and that I wouldn’t immediately restart it the second it was over. Television is personal, sometimes, and that’s a good thing. We need it.


Stray observations

  • On a lighter note! Black-ish continues to be funny! I loved the end tag.
  • Also of note: Zoey’s mini-breakdown at the end while worrying about Andre’s safety. (And Bow’s “I’m just so happy there’s some depth inside of her. I was worried. Really worried.”)
  • Junior has some strong feelings on Trainwreck and I would like to know all of them.
  • If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend the Carmichael Show episode about the same topic. It’s incredibly funny, warm, and smart.
  • And, some shameless promotion: a few months ago, I took a deep dive into the trend of #BlackLivesMatter/police violence episodes on TV (from Carmichael Show to CSI Cyber and everything in between), if that interests you.
  • Thanks to LaToya for letting me fill in tonight (or, I guess, thanks to her poor immune system). I hope she at least drops by the comments with thoughts!