This week, Black-ish took on police violence and the different ways police treat people of color. The show couldn’t have chosen a better time to address this topic, considering police shootings of black people and protests against those shootings are still happening all the time. Although the ultimate result was flawed (we’ll get to that), it’s good that someone with a national platform is addressing this issue, considering the topic didn’t even come up at the most recent presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Speaking of whom, Black-ish made no bones about subtweeting our current candidates during this week’s episode. The first line of Dre’s episode-opening narration explores Trump’s famous slogan: “What truly makes America great?” Dre believes the answer is “community,” and cliché images of Americans building things together play beside footage of Clinton and Trump rallies. In Dre’s mind, America is a giant melting pot filled with people committed to building a better future together… except this line of thought is interrupted when he opens the elevator door at the office and finds a young white girl staring up at him, alone. After looking around frantically, Dre ultimately does nothing, deciding to skip the elevator rather than get caught alone with a defenseless white girl.
Historically, of course, black men have not been given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to white women. That’s not something Dre’s bosses understand, however, when they find security camera tape of Dre abandoning this lost girl. Leslie insists on winding the tape back over and over, declaring that Dre has surely ruined this girl’s faith in humanity — “that is how serial killers are born.” Dre brings up the racial dynamic of the situation, to which Josh screams hysterically “NO! You can’t play the race card today!” Dre is immediately vindicated, however, when Charlie walks in and excuses his lateness by saying there was a white girl in the elevator and he had to take the stairs to avoid her. “Careful, Dre,” he warns, “someone’s setting traps.”
Dre tries to prove his point using a different method: Pop cultural comparison. Ralph Kramden was the beloved protagonist of The Honeymooners even though his catchphrase was threatening his wife with, “pow! Right in the kisser!” Dre imagines a version of The Honeymooners starring him and Bow (somewhat like last season’s Good Times episode), in which he gets hauled away by the police at the first threat of domestic violence. It’s a great joke — one of the most interesting parts of Black-ish as a TV show is its willingness to respond to the racial politics of past TV shows. At this point, Curtis walks in and declares that the white girl on the elevator “almost had me.” Point: Made.
Dre shows the same footage at home and gets two completely different reactions. Bow thinks she’s married a monster who refuses to help defenseless girls, but Pop affirms that black men can never be too careful. He flashes back to his time as an elevator operator. When a young girl walked into his elevator by herself, he up and quit the job. Bow thinks these assumptions are outdated: “It’s Drake summer ‘16,” she points out. Things have changed.
Bow is now on maternity leave from work, and she’d much rather spend it hanging with her kids than getting into arguments with her stubborn husband and father-in-law. Unfortunately for her, her kids don’t want anything to do with her. They’d rather go to their rooms than hang out with her. At this point Pops comes in and offers her help. He’ll teach her some of the pick-up moves he uses to seduce women. Bow obviously rejects this absurd offer, but it’s clear she does need some kind of help reaching her children. Naturally, she’ll end up picking the stupidest possible idea.
Dre, Junior, and Johan are in the car listening to rap music, which is going fine until a car full of white boys pulls up next to them at a stoplight blasting the same. Dre immediately turns down their radio, and yells at Johan and Junior for being millennials who imagine they live in some kind of post-racial utopia. In the real world, Dre explains, it’s illegal to scare white people. Johan and Junior respond by pointing out that these white guys don’t look scared. They know every word to this Rich Homie Quan song, which is probably more than Rich Homie Quan himself can say (Black-ish’s taste in hip-hop is always in point).
Dre remains skeptical, at least until later when the three of them end up in an elevator with a blonde white woman. Instead of calling the cops or instinctively pepper-spraying them, this woman calls in a delivery order and offers up all kinds of incriminating details, from her credit card number to the faults in her home security system. She doesn’t even seem to care that she’s alone with three black men. Now Dre’s seen it all.
NEXT: Pops’ pimp strategy
Bow is naturally a little confused when Dre tries to process his emotions about this. If he was upset by racist treatment from white people, why is he still upset even though he’s no longer getting that treatment? Dre explains, brilliantly, that the armor you construct around yourself when the whole world hates you (developing passions for necklaces and sneakers, say) is how you build your cultural identity. Without the threat, his passions for sneakers and necklaces make him seem like a middle-aged woman. Bow thinks it’s high time that Dre let his cultural guard down a bit — stop ignoring their white neighbors, start letting Bow watch the end of movies like The Help and The Legend of Bagger Vance (major Hollywood films featuring black characters in subservient roles to white leads). Dre agrees to lighten up a bit.
Bow’s battle isn’t going so well on the other front. Pops finds her eating ice cream alone and convinces her to finally try some of his pimp techniques. The two most important: Make them wait, and then make them jealous.
Dre’s strategy pays immediate dividends. His neighbor Jeanine is so happy he finally said hi to her that she invites him to attend the local Homeowners’ Association meeting. Hilariously, Junior is already waiting there; he never misses an HOA meeting. Only problem? She’s a little drunk, and everyone else is tired of giving her rides. “Jeanine’s not-problem is rearing its ugly head again,” her husband deadpans, in one of the darkest lines of the episode (this whole episode really straddles the line between serious issues and goofy fun without ever quite settling on either). In order to demonstrate what a good citizen he is now, Dre agrees to drive her home.
Bow implements the first stage of Pop’s pimp plan: Make them wait. Rather crazily, she has chosen to apply this strategy to dinner. She didn’t make dinner, which has understandably made the kids a little antsy. Pops tells her to hold strong, even as her Mama Bear alarms go off.
In the car, Dre, Junior, and Johan are listening to some harmless Hanson. Dre notes that today has been very chill: He let his guard down, went to the HOA meeting, even participated in some casual racism. Just then, a police siren goes off. “I blame myself,” Dre says.
Well, obviously, Dre never actually blames himself for anything. In this case, he blames Junior and Johan for talking him into ignoring “400 years’ worth of instincts.” He doesn’t have his license, and the owner of the car he’s driving is a white woman passed out drunk in the passenger’s seat … Not a good situation for interacting with a cop. Every hypothetical scenario Dre runs through in his head for dealing with this officer ends in him either jailed or shot. The last would probably come as a result of telling the officer he was recording their interaction — the episode’s most biting joke, considering how much video we have of police shooting unarmed black people, and how little those recordings have done to stop police officers from continuing to do so. Instead, Dre opts to run away. He just opens the door and skedaddles before the cop even has time to get out of his car.
Bow and Pops hear a police siren in the background, but are still focused on their plan. It’s now time for step two: Make them jealous. Bow does this by not only ignoring her kids’ demands for dinner, but by fawning over pictures of their cousins as well. Just then Dre comes in, and tells his family to act like he’s been there the whole time. Junior comes next, followed, eventually, by Johan. Each of them successfully got away from the cop with minimal harm, though Johan did suffer some scratches when he turned back to rescue fliers for his spoken word showcase. Junior then performs his own spoken-word poem about their latest escapade, which worries Johan: Is that how I sound? Worse, Dre answers, since you’re a grown man.
The fact that the cop in question is never seen somewhat undercut the themes at work here. It makes for an anticlimactic end to the episode, and makes the greater thematic point somewhat toothless. Police violence needs to have a face if it’s going to be tangible to people; keeping them faceless like this just obscures the everyday reality of racist policing, in addition to robbing the episode of gravitas. Still, Black-ish remains miles ahead of the rest of pop culture for even broaching this topic at all, and debating it in such a smart, funny manner.