Scott D. Pierce: ‘Black-ish’ lays out the facts on efforts to keep Black people from voting
(Image courtesy of ABC/Smiley Guy Studios) Zoey (voiced by Yara Shahidi), Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), Dre (Anthony Anderson), Diane (Marsai Martin), Jack (Miles Brown) and Junior (Marcus Scribner) in an animated episode of "Black-ish."
Never a stranger to controversy, the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” is certain to stir up some more on Sunday.
In back-to-back episodes — “Election Special Part 1” and “Election Special Part 2” (9 and 9:30 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4) — the show takes direct aim at the state of politics and race relations in America right now. It’s fact-based comedy, and it’s tough on America.
In “Part 1,” Junior (Marcus Scribner) is excited about voting in his first presidential election — and then he learns that his name has been removed from the voter rolls. Which leads to him learning that “the truth” is that “America hasn’t wanted Black people to vote since the day this country became a country.” That “the system isn’t broken, it’s working exactly how it was designed.”
And, relying on history and facts, the show does an excellent job of building a case that that’s 100% true.
(Photo courtesy of ABC) Junior (Marcus Scribner) is shocked when his name is removed from the voter rolls, he tells his father, Dre (Anthony Anderson), in a special episode of "Black-ish."
The episode isn’t subtle, but it’s neither strident nor self-righteous. It’s funny. It’ll make you laugh while it makes you think.
Well, viewers who aren’t angry and closed-minded will laugh and think.
And the goal is to “get people to rally around voting” for the candidates of their choice, said “Black-ish” creator/executive producer Kenya Barris. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden is mentioned in the episode.
“Part 1” is partially animated; “Part 2” is entirely animated — a way to produce the show without risking the spread of COVID-19. It, too, is a pointed political commentary.
Dre (Anthony Anderson) is shocked to learn that his boss, Leslie Stevens (Peter Mackenzie), is running for Congress. Stevens has decided to run because, well, he’s rich, white and privileged. Dre also decides to get into the race, and encounters the worst of American politics — lying, fundraising and special interests.
“Part 2” isn’t as good as “Part 1,” but it has its moments.
The special episodes airing Sunday were a “happy accident,” Barris said, “because we were trying to figure out a way to still have a presence, especially in election year.”
Because when ABC announced its fall schedule back in June, “Black-ish” wasn’t on it. The seventh season of the sitcom was being held back for midseason. The cast and producers weren’t happy about it — and they actively engaged ABC execs in an effort to change their minds.
“We were hopeful, and we were vocal,” said Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays Rainbow on the show.
“Tell him about all of the screaming we did on the phone,” Anderson added.
A day later, the network announced it had changed its mind and put “Black-ish” back on the fall schedule. Its regular season premiere is set for Oct. 21, so it will air a couple more episodes before Election Day.
Anderson said he told ABC programmers “that it would be doing a disservice to our audience, a disservice to the community, and a disservice to our show to have our voices muted in a time like this.”
The show has been “a megaphone or an amplifier of … things to talk about in society and culturally,” said Barris. “And so we felt like, during this time in particular, the show would be unusually but importantly necessary.”
At the very least, it seemed odd when ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke announced her decision to delay the return of “Black-ish.”
“We all were kind of astonished at the fact that they were thinking about not bringing us back in the way that they have,” Laurence Fishburne, who plays Pops. “But we were hopeful that we could convince them to take a look at things and reconsider it. And they did.”
“I think there’s a lot to be said when somebody makes a choice and then realizes it wasn’t the right one and changes course,” Ross said. “They made a solid pivot.”
It’s not an altogether unprecedented move, but network executives are right up there with Trump in their reluctance to admit they’ve made a mistake. And Burke deserves a lot of credit for backtracking so quickly.