“Black-ish” has never been afraid to go all-in on tough storytelling topics, but in this fourth season alone the show has tackled everything from the details behind the end of slavery that are not often taught in schools, to the deeper meaning behind soul food, to postpartum depression and a diabetes diagnosis.
“This year was a special year because it really, for us, pushed us over. It really, for us, made us feel like we’re a show — we have our fans, we feel like people know our characters, and we get to tell stories that we might not have been able to tell that first season,” series creator Kenya Barris said at the Emmy FYC event for his ABC comedy Saturday. “In this day and age when so many things are pulling people apart, one of the things we actually like to do is bring people together through conversation.”
In order to keep the conversation going, the “Black-ish” FYC event this year was a table read and block party instead of a traditional screening and panel. The cast read the sixth episode of the fourth season, “First and Last,” which saw Dre (Anthony Anderson) concerned Junior (Marcus Scribner) was finally going to best him in basketball, while Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) struggled with Diane (Marsai Martin) getting her period for the first time and not wanting her mother’s “talk.”
Additionally, wardrobe from the “Juneteenth” musical season premiere was on display for photo ops for the Academy members and other attendees.
Martin shared with Variety that this episode was the one she was most personally proud of from the season because Diane’s storyline is “something all girls my age are going through but it’s rarely talked about.”
For a similar reason, Ross told Variety one of the episodes she was particularly proud of this year was “Mother Nature,” in which her character realizes she is suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her fifth child.
“I thought it was really well-handled in not placing blame anywhere but sort of holding the curiosity from the partner’s standpoint of ‘I don’t really know what this is.’ And I think it was confusing for her after so many children and not experiencing it. So, we attacked it in a way that was very in-line with how we experience things on the show,” Ross said.
Ross also had the honor, and pressure, of stepping behind the camera this season on the “Fifty-Three Percent” episode, something she said she “jumped at the chance to do” when Barris asked. But she admitted it was an extra challenging episode because it was “the beginning of a four-episode arc of something we’ve never done before — us exploring a part of our relationship that we don’t know.”
“The place where Bow and Dre connect — and where Anthony and Tracee connect, and where the heart of the show is — is this place of respect and love of each other, so taking that away was an interesting thing to find,” Ross added.
In “Fifty-Three Percent,” Dre and Bow are in a “funk” in their relationship, and although they attempt couples counseling, they can’t seem to shake the fighting. The subsequent three episodes, which comprise most of the remainder of the fourth season, further explore the “wedge” between the Johnsons.
“It’s not something that can be sugarcoated or wrapped up in one half-hour,” Anderson said. “Working on something as sensitive as a divorce or problems in a marriage or a separation you run the gamut of emotions — love, hate, despair — and we’re going to take our viewing audience on that ride. And it’s very personal, and it’s something we’re not afraid to talk about or tackle on our show, and that’s why there’s a four-episode arc on it.”
It is “Black-ish’s” willingness to go deeper than punchlines with its characters that the cast all agrees makes the show special. As the real world changes around them (sometimes not in positive ways), they want to hold a mirror up to reflect what is going on to hopefully inspire discussion and to stoke an inner fire.
“The world is thirsty for honesty and truth — facts that are not altered. We’re thirsty for it right now,” Jenifer Lewis said. “As long as people are thinking, as long as people are talking then we’ve got a chance — the next generation’s got a chance as long as we don’t shut down. I tell everybody, ‘You can’t just sit on your a– for four years until this blows over. You’ve got to resist, you’ve got to fight, you’ve got to stand up — OK you lay down for police brutality but now I need you stand up. I need you to feel your feelings. Then move — organize and move.'”