'Black-ish' Boss on Tackling Police Brutality: "I Didn't Want to Politicize the Show"

Black-ish - H 2016
Courtesy of ABC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Wednesday's episode of Black-ish.]

Titled "Hope," Wednesday's episode of ABC's Black-ish represented a big risk.

The Emmy-nominated series has taken a comedic look at often serious subjects like gun control, the N-Word and all manner of stereotypes and institutional racism, but "Hope" was shockingly dramatic, befitting the topic of police brutality. 

More specifically, the episode focused on the difficult conversations that parents and children are forced to have about the waves of violence and protest that have spread from Ferguson to Baltimore to New York City and nationwide in recent years. How do you explain law and order and justice to kids when the media shows every day how elusive those things can be?

"Hope" featured a number of punchlines and random gags, but it also included tears and the most emotional performances in the show's run. 

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris about the genesis of the episode, his hopes and fears for its impact, the incendiary pictures he couldn't show and the widespread movement he chose not to mention. Barris also expresses optimism in the aftermath of ABC's recent executive change.

[Barris gets on the phone and before the recorder can start, he expresses nervousness about reactions to the episode.] Let's start there. What are your hopes for the episode and what has you worried about the episode and how people will respond to it?

Well, my hopes are that it starts a great conversation and, at the same time, makes people laugh and think. My fear is: I don't what to piss anyone off. I don't want to politicize the show. I don't want people to feel like it's not funny enough. I don't want people to feel like it's too heavy to be a comedy. That's encapsulated in some of my fears. But it's done now. I'm proud of it. But I'm schizophrenic in terms of how I view it, because I do see that it's heavy. As a writer, you never want to have the Special Episode of television, but there's no way that it doesn't fit under that category. (Laughs.) So I'm there with it. I just hope that it's received well and I hope that it actually starts a conversation, because I think that it's a conversation we need to have.

You say you don't want to politicize the show, but I feel like the show is consistently political. What is the distinction you want to make there?

It's politically adjacent. I'm serious. When I said, "I don't want to politicize the show," I believe a show becomes really politicized or a point of view becomes really politicized when it lands on one direct point of view. It's from a different space if you kind of show different points of view and land in different places, but at the same time make sure that each of those points of view are really thought out. You can let people make their own decision. That's sort of where I feel like I want people to feel like. I want people to feel like we handled it with as much of an even tone as this family could, but at the same time gave people a place to start their conversations and take what they like.

An episode like this, do you think that you as a writer and the show in general would have been able to do this in season one?

No, I don't. In some aspects it was, I won't say "earned" because we're still to nascent to say that, but the viewers of the show might say that this was an episode that we could pull off and even the critics of the show, the people who write about the show, would say that this is something that doesn't feel too far away from they know the family to have become. I think had we tried it too early, it would not have been received as well. If it's going to be received well at all. At the same time, I didn't have an organic entry point for this story and that's sort of how we build our stories and we didn't have an organic entry point, so I would think it would have been really contrived and forced if we'd done it before this time.

I'm sure the network has been very open to what you have wanted to do over the past two years, but were there any specific notes or pointers from the network here? Things they wanted to make sure this episode did or didn't do?

To be honest with you? We got very few notes, if any, on this. The biggest thing we've gotten and the battle, if there's a battle, has been from legal about clearing imaging and what is OK to show in a broadcast network comedy at 9:30. But it has not been dialogue-based. It's been image-based.

You use many of the most potent images of the past century in this episode. What couldn't you use?

The network has a little bit of a policy on the image of the Twin Towers and 9/11. I wanted to do that, because I felt like that was something of the contemporary times. Same thing with the Paris bombing. Same thing with the Boston bombing. Those types of things, that's just a blanket network policy and I understand it. It's a publicly traded corporation and they feel like that's a little bit... So those types of things, I don't think that we got anything that was not talked about on a network stance before, but those were some hurdles we had to leap over, because I felt like that was a really important image that I wanted to show, but I understand the reason that we couldn't.

When you were crafting the specifics for the McQuillan case that's the episode's backdrop, what were the features you wanted to make sure it included? It's so close to plausible that some people will think it's real.

We wanted to make an aggregate of all the cases that have happened in the last five years. One of the things we wanted to look at was a nationwide interest, how this case that was fictitious could spark a nationwide interest. We wanted to look at national news coverage and not just the nationwide interest from the public, but also from the media. That's why we asked Don Lemon to come in. We wanted to bring in Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was not able to do it, but he gave us permission to use his image and some footage of him. We wanted to have somebody who was part of sort of the Black Think Tank of America to be part of it. We wanted to make sure that it had all the pomp and circumstance of a grand jury indictment. In the same way that we keep buying cop shows and we buy medical shows, these announcements have become part of the fabric of the zeitgeist in a way where we know how they go. We wanted to make sure there were protests.

Along those lines, the phrase or hashtag or concept "Black Lives Matter" is very specifically not mentioned in this episode. I assume that was a choice. What was the calculus on that decision?

That's why I said I didn't want to politicize the show. I believe that's a politicized movement and my personal believe on that has nothing to do with what the show is and I don't think that that particular movement is what this family's conversation's was about. Police brutality happened to be the thing that the family was talking about. I think it's a really important conversation to have. But at the heart of what the episode's about, it's about talking to kids about things that 20 years ago you may have not had to talk to them about, because you could just turn the television off, but now with all the images and all the access to information and news that is happening on a day-to-day basis, you can't turn those images off. So you have to have conversations about things with your kids you shouldn't have to and how do you not take your personal experiences and skew and scorch the Earth of what your children's future is going to be, but at the same time still give them the benefit of your personal experiences so that they don't have to have some bumps and bruises that you went through. That can be about Prop 8. That can be about alcohol. That can be about Internet sex. 

I was talking to my wife about this the other day, we have a generation of kids who are learning to have sex off of Internet porn. They're getting the most debaucherous base of what sex is at their fingertips and you have to go have a conversation where you want to talk about the birds and bees, but that's an antiquated conversation to have with them. So it's a conversation that has to change. How do you have that, how do you take your experiences and give it to them when they have a whole different set of experiences that are coming at them every day?

Was there an actual conversation you had to have that inspired this?

The episode came about because my second oldest son literally, we were watching the Ferguson indictment, and he turned around and he said, "Why are all these people so mad?" That really was what sparked it. I knew that was a story I wanted to do and I knew I wanted to shoot is proscenium and I wanted to have it sitting in front of a couch and I wanted it to harken back to the days of the All in the Family rape episode and things like that. I knew I wanted to take you and make you a fly on the wall in this family's life. You asked me some of the trepidation I have, it's that there's not a lot of movement. You're really just joining a conversation. You're really basically in this one place the whole time, other than the cutaways. It's a departure. Lemme ask you this: Did you laugh? 

I did! And I'm curious about the process of refining punchlines versus refining the argument of the episode?

I think it was a balancing act. We wanted to make sure that we had some levity to make the seriousness of the topic something that you could swallow, but at the same time we didn't want to have so much levity that it trivialized the issue that was being talked about. I think ABC has done a really good job. I saw the first ads that ABC is putting up, and it's really coming off as very dramatic. I'm glad that they're promoting it like that, because I played it for a couple people and didn't give them the, "Head's up, this is a different kind of episode" and I think the responses has been metered in a way that I didn't necessarily expect. It hurt and that's what scares me. I want everyone to know that it's not going to be a normal episode of Black-ish.

The show has done serious topics, but the balance always stayed toward comedy. This feels like a serious topic with the balance toward the serious.

And that's scary. But it's done now and we'll see!

Does it change the tone on-set?

It's interesting, because the table read was unlike any table read that I've ever been a part of. People were literally laughing and crying at the same time. Afterwards, Laurence [Fishburne] stood up, with tears in his eyes, and Jenifer [Lewis] and they said, "Thank you!" and I was like, "What?" It's not what you're expecting as a comedy writer. And during the week, everyone was ever respectful to the work, because it definitely felt like something different that we were doing. You don't ever want to say television's "important," but I do think the conversation that it subsequently may start could be important. So people, they came to play and they were aware that it was in that place and it was going to be hard. I think the biggest thing is that as a comedy writer, I'm always looking to make people laugh and this was just a big leap for me in terms of that not necessarily being the first goal of this episode.

You guys have obviously had network support on this episode and throughout, so I wanted to get a sense of how you're feeling after last week's big executive shift at the network.

I don't know how it's going to impact us. It's been seamless thus far. I'm always going to be a fan of [former ABC Entertainment president] Paul [Lee]. He bought the show and was unbelievably supportive in a way that I don't think most network presidents would have been. At the same time, I know Channing [Dungey] and we've talked and you ask around town and she a beloved and very competent executive under [Disney-ABC Television Group president] Ben Sherwood who, as a chairman, has been supportive of the show since he got here. I'm not expecting a lot of change. I think we have our voice and the network is supportive of it. I'm not expecting a lot a change. If anything, as we move into the really important years of our series, maybe we get even more support.

Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.