In 1994, Frank Darabont directed “Shawshank Redemption,” a surprisingly uplifting prison drama starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. This critically acclaimed flick is now considered one of the best movies of all time. But when it premiered in theaters, it received a lukewarm box office reception and barely recouped it’s budget.
When audiences were polled about why they didn’t rush to see the film, there seemed to be one clear response – no one understood the title. Folks wondered, “What in the world is a Shawshank?” and didn’t really feel all that compelled to spend ten bucks to find out. It was word of mouth (and several Academy Award nominations) that later convinced people to rent the movie and give it a chance. And now it’s considered a classic.
As a filmmaker, I’ve always seen that legendary blunder as a cautionary tale about the importance of making a good first impression with your audience. Whether we want to admit it or not – people do judge books by their cover.
So when ABC started promoting their new family drama Black-ish — my first reaction was “Oh no! Somebody just pulled a Shawshank!” And it appears I was right. Many (myself included) were flat out confused by the name. We wondered: what in the world does Black-ish even mean? And in this tense climate of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown cases permeating our newsfeeds, the use of the word “black” quickly saw that confusion turning into a scapegoat for racial frustrations.
People immediately assumed ABC had created a platform to mock and disrespect the African-American experience. And before the show even aired, everyone and their mother had their pitchforks ready to protest. Well-read black people all over the country started writing lengthy masterpieces about being indignant; the overall sentiment seeming to be “How dare they!”
Even here on theGrio there was a piece that pretty much threw out the baby with the bath water, stating, “at the risk of being rash, I’m rendering my verdict before the first show’s credits even start rolling.”
And for me — in that statement lies my problem with a lot of y’all.
You ARE being harsh though; disproportionally so.
When you actually watch Black-ish (sans the pitchfork) there isn’t any of the expected bafoonery. Instead, it’s a pretty PG rated sitcom about the trickiness of raising a healthy black family in a world that appropriates black culture — while still devaluing black people.
Anthony Anderson plays a father who wants to make sure his success doesn’t rob his children of their culture. Tracey Ellis Ross is a working mom who just wants her kids to be happy. And Laurence Fishburne is the grumpy granddad whose simplistic old school wisdom helps them keep things in perspective. Can the dialogue be a little over the top at times? Of course! But that is literally what sitcoms do. They exaggerate our real lives so that we’re detached enough to laugh at things that usually cause us grief.
I hate to point this out — but our beloved Cosby Show did the same thing. Am I the only one who remembers how many times Stevie Wonder, Lena Horne and the like — all just happened to “drop by” and hang with the Huxtables? That wasn’t real life either. But thirty years ago, we loved it.
Will Black-ish be the next Cosby Show? No. But that’s because of us, not them.
I suspect even the Cosby Show wouldn’t be the same if it were being produced in 2014. Instead of seeing it as some sort of Holy Grail of Blackness, social media would probably be making fun of Cliff’s sweaters and signing petitions against Rudy’s unkempt natural hair.
The fact that writer Kenya Barris is willing to even approach this premise is admirable. Most writers are staying clear of anything that could even potentially piss off prickly black folks — and with good reason.
Let’s face it folks — some of you guys have no chill. And I get why. The world we live in can be frustrating and demoralizing at times. But when did we lose the ability to laugh? Especially at ourselves.
Contrary to what many assumed, Black-ish is a harmless sitcom that’s trying to approach some pretty timely narratives with a sense of whimsy. If you don’t like some of the jokes, (or are too embarrassed to admit you got mad over nothing) ok. No biggie. Maybe you and Donald Trump can discuss your outrage over drinks.
But please respect that some of us are actually over here laughing, and enjoying ourselves.