Black-ish: Why Kenya Barris decided to celebrate black history with a musical episode
Warning: This post contains spoilers from the Black-ish season 4 premiere
As promised, Black-ish‘s season 4 premiere didn’t pull any punches when it came to discussing Juneteenth and slavery.
In the Emmy-nominated ABC sitcom’s bold season opener, Dre (Anthony Anderson) teams up with Aloe Blacc to create a musical about Juneteenth because he feels as though there aren’t enough black holidays. At first, his family (and his oblivious white co-workers) are resistant to the idea, but by the end of the episode, the entire Johnson family has come around to it: They (belatedly) celebrate the end of the slavery because they realize they’re tired of ignoring their culture in order to avoid making others uncomfortable.
Along the way, there are several musical numbers that directly address the United States’ fraught history with slavery. The Roots star in (and wrote) a hilarious animated sequence titled “I’m Just a Slave.” Then, the Johnson clan, dressed as slaves in the nineteenth century, perform two Hamilton-inspired, gospel choir-assisted songs. The first one, “We Built This,” bluntly states that slaves built the country, and the groovy “Juneteenth” is a simultaneously fun and sad (think “Angels” by Chance the Rapper) reflection on how life wasn’t immediately better for black people after they received their freedom.
EW caught up with creator Kenya Barris to discuss the episode’s boldest statements, how writing affected his family’s life, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After watching this episode, my co-worker and I were like, “How did this make it on TV?”
KENYA BARRIS: It’s interesting. It’s one of those things that people are going to love or hate. I feel like one of the interesting things to me is the notion that it makes people uncomfortable is the ironic thing. Yeah, the episode talks about how talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable, I get that. At the same time, it’s not indicting of anything contemporary. It really is more indicting, if anything, of black culture and being afraid of making of other people uncomfortable, and thus disregarding our own past. I think that was sort of the pitch to the network. But I do think it’s a swing that I’m really proud of.
What was the network’s reaction when you pitched this?
They were very supportive of the script and the episode. I think that they got nervous after it was done because it could potentially be something that has some reactions, but they’ve been supportive.
That idea of disregarding our own past definitely comes up in the penultimate scene in which Dre says that black people ignore Juneteenth and Kwanzaa and watch Portlandia to make others comfortable.
I think that’s at the core of what made me want to do this. When you bring up Kwanzaa or Juneteenth, I know for me, I laugh, like, “Pssh, bulls—t.” Then, I had to sort of check myself and say, “Why am I laughing at that? Why is that some bulls—t?” It’s because I know I’ve been in situations where if I bring it up or talk about what it means, it makes other people uncomfortable, thus I don’t talk about it, and the way for me to deal with it is to joke about how it’s the McDowell’s to McDonald’s of things. That’s not necessarily true, and it’s not necessarily a message that I want to keep forwarding.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned how this episode was inspired by something you’d gone through with your family. Has this episode changed how you approach Juneteenth? Do you plan on celebrating it?
I will, actually. It’s something that I want to embrace, and I want my friends to embrace it because I think it’s important. In this country, if you’re Jewish-American or a person of Jewish descent, a horrible contemporary tragedy happened in the Holocaust. Awful! The one thing with that, that gives a little bit of a reset button or a chance [of one] is that there is a face that you can put to that evil. There was an end to it and there was a face. If they find out you’re a Nazi and you’re 95 years old, we’re gonna come in your house and drag you out; it’s not okay. There has never been a prosecuted case of slavery. There’s no criminality to it. So, it was just like, “It’s over,” and thus, because it was over and it was never considered “wrong” in the prosecutable, criminal sense of the word, the country doesn’t take it as wrong. There’s a moralistic thing. If you choose to take it and say it was morally wrong, thank you, but there is not like a, “it was absolutely legally wrong.” So, you take people and put them back in society after hundreds of millions of deaths and heritage loss, and now they’re trying to deal with this in a society that, because there was no criminality put to it, you can’t really talk about it. It’s kind of like, “That’s over, guys. Let’s not talk about it.” That’s a hard place for a lot of people to be able to live in this country with, white and black! A lot of my friends who are sympathetic to the situation, it’s hard for them to sort of [accept] the idea that there’s no criminality put to it. People just wish that we would stop talking about it, and that’s not fair.
Like with most things, you can’t just ignore it and hope that it goes away. The pain is still there.
Maybe if the country, together, celebrated the end of something on a yearly basis, that would bring a lot more peace and solidarity between a country that’s so clearly still split. But to celebrate that makes people feel that you have to acknowledge that it was real, and you have to acknowledge it was wrong, bigger than the moral sense of it; you have to acknowledge that it was wrong as a human rights violation — one of the grossest examples of a human rights violation in the history of mankind.
The episode has an interesting structure. My colleague Tim Stack compared it to Chicago, in that it cuts away to performances as opposed to having the characters break out into song in the middle of a scene. How did you decide how to incorporate music into the show?
We knew that we didn’t want to do characters all of a sudden breaking out into song. You didn’t want someone to be walking around and all of a sudden, [he sings]“Slavery!” We didn’t think that was going to be the best way to handle it. Also, I’m a huge fan of [Lin-Manuel Miranda], Hamilton, and just of theatre in general, and [I know] how talented this cast is and what they’re able to do. One of our writers last year Gail Lerner had talked about doing a musical and jokingly [suggested] Juneteenth. At that point, we laughed it off because we were still in that place. Peter Saji, who wrote it, did an amazing job. I think when we were conceiving the episode’s idea, we knew we only had 21 minutes and we [thought], “What are the two numbers we wanted to say?” The Roots came in and did what I think was an amazing piece of animation and music for it.
Did this take longer to put together than a normal episode?
It did not. We only shot it in the same amount of time that we shoot a regular episode. I worked on the music for a while. We have been unbelievably lucky in how we’ve been able to sort of band together and get things done at microwave speed. We only had five days to shoot that episode.
Was there anyone that surprised you when you started working on it and staging it?
Laurence Fishburne. He’s a great actor, but he dances and sings, too? He can just do everything. Tracee [Ellis Ross], as well. To be honest, all [of the] actors are just magic people and they can do anything.
Black-ish airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.