‘Black-ish’ Takes on Police Brutality and Why Black Kids Need to Know the Truth

In ‘Hope,’ the ABC sitcom tackles the multifaceted conversation around police brutality with wit, warmth, and a much-needed dose of realism.

02.25.16 3:18 AM ET

Black-ish has consistently shown that it isn’t afraid to tackle social issues. The Season Two premiere was about the casual use of the N-word and Season One featured episodes devoted to everything from black Republicans to corporal punishment. The show prides itself on presenting a more-nuanced-than-you’d-expect take on the concerns and quirks of black culture, so it makes perfect sense that it would tackle the current outrage over high-profile killings of black people by police. “The police are shooting people with no arms—why am I just now hearing about this?” exclaims a stunned Jack as the family struggles with how to explain to its youngest members what’s going on—and to help Jack understand what “unarmed” means.

In “Hope,” the Johnsons are glued to the screen on a family night, tensely watching and waiting for a grand jury's ruling on a fictionalized (but just real enough) killing of an unarmed black man by a police officer. This man was tazed 37 times while selling Trainwreck and Chi-raq DVDs, a setup for a hilarious Spike Lee dig (“Chi-raq is clearly the reason the boy was tazed—horrible movie,” exclaims Ruby.) 

When Zoe confuses the details of the case, the rest of the family tries to explain exactly which unarmed black guy was killed this time: “No, Charleston was the unarmed guy who got shot in the back. Cincy was the traffic stop,” Junior clarifies. It sets up the rest of the episode nicely, conveying Zoe’s flippancy and the frequency of these killings—the kind of frequency that would eventually contribute to teenage apathy. 

One of black-ish’s most consistent strengths is its ability to weave in topicality without treading too close to treacly “Very Special Episode”-style preachiness, but even more significant is the way the show juggles multiple angles on a particular subject. Several facets of the cultural conversation about police brutality play out while the Johnson family discusses the night’s news and tries to decide what to order for take-out. At the center is the conflict between Bow and Dre, born of Bow’s desire to not turn her kids against the system at such a young age and Dre’s belief that black children can’t afford to be ignorant about the racist world in which they live. 

The rest of the family deals with the news in their own way. Ruby prepares for impending riots (“I got nails and two-by-fours to secure the entrances!”) as Junior develops a Ta-Nehisi Coates fixation, quoting the famed author’s work—much to Dre's frustration. (“Where’s CNN when I’m saying that stuff!”) Meanwhile, Zoe barely seems to care, fixated on texting her friends and keeping the twins away from a P.F. Chang’s menu.

In what turns out to be a funny and honest take on a subject that has divided so much of the country, “Hope” channels both optimism (though Rainbow) and hard reality (Andre), the righteousness of newly illuminated youth (Junior) and the common criticism that millennials are supposedly too distracted and shallow to care about the ills of society (Zoe). Little Jack and Diane symbolize youngsters whose perspectives adults often don’t want to taint, but who also could be at risk of becoming victims of the very racism their parents so adamantly hide from them.

“I don’t want to feel like my kids are living in a world that is so flawed that they can’t have any hope,” Bow says after Dre explains that “the system is rigged against us.”  

The episode’s most evocative moment is when Andre explains to Bow why black kids need to know the truth. Reminding her of the hopefulness so many black Americans felt on the night of Barack Obama’s election, he also reminded her of the dread and anxiety attached to that hope; the belief that “someone was going to snatch that hope—like they always do.” It’s a strong scene and Anthony Anderson carries it well, without overselling the drama in favor of honesty. 

Dre and Bow’s perspectives do illustrate the various ways that Americans in general, but black Americans specifically attempt to address racism and make their children understand it. For some, the hard truth is delivered with love but as much candor as possible. And for others, the need to preserve that child’s “innocence” is so strong that they’d gladly distort the truth for the sake of maintaining some kind of “hopeful” illusion. The show tries not to let the system or the viewer totally off the hook—the family soon comes to the consensus that things have to change—but it does get a bit hamstrung in its desperate attempt to maintain some measure of optimism. 

Black-ish relies on the underlying theme of this episode’s title for its main takeaway, but there is plenty of apprehension packed into its 22 minutes of sitcom-approved social commentary. The jaded pragmatism of Dre and his parents is as real as Zoe’s initially aloof dismissals or the suddenly-conscious rhetoric Junior so enthusiastically embraces. In a mostly smart and funny episode, black-ish again shows how shrewd it is at tackling contemporary nuances of African-American life. If the ending is a bit warm ’n’ fuzzy, (images of multi-ethnic pride pass onscreen to the sound of John Legend’s “If You’re Out There,”) the episode can be forgiven for attempting to remind us that, after all of that topicality and tough “messaging,” it is a primetime family sitcom. 

And there is an odd anachronism; How can Dre have been both a teenager during a sequence evoking the Malcolm X fashion trend of the early-’90s in one flashback, but a much younger version of himself asking questions about famous early ’90s headline grabbers Jeffrey Dahmer and Lorena Bobbitt in a later flashback? Curious.

But pop culture inconsistencies and that sentimental ending don’t negate the show’s ambition and success in addressing such an important topic. In a cultural climate where even the Super Bowl and the Grammys have become platforms for black entertainment to address black concerns and white supremacy, black-ish felt compelled to put in its two cents. It wasn’t perfect, but it was well worth it.