black-ish Recap: A Somber Discussion of Police Brutality, Tinged With Hope

Week after week, black-ish delivers as many laughs per minute as any comedy on television.

But while Wednesday’s installment had its fair share of wicked zingers — Ruby’s “Trust me, precious metal and sexual favors are the only currency during times of civil unrest” springs immediately to mind — the serious subject matter and compact direction made it unfold like a half-hour stage play about the nation’s epidemic of police brutality against black people (and the failure of the justice system to remedy it).

The episode — which took place almost entirely in the Johnson family’s living room — found Dre and Bow and their four children, as well as Dre’s parents, gathered around the TV awaiting news about whether a grand jury would indict in a fictional case where cops used their tasers 37 times on an unarmed black man selling DVDs.

The half hour occasionally strained in its efforts to make statistics and harsh truths a natural part of the dialogue, a situation common to many series’ “Very Special Episodes.” (That said, maybe we should all go to our local book store and get Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me… just sayin’.)

But ultimately, the multi-generational approach to the subject matter proved as illuminating as it was moving. As Dre’s parents, Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis managed to convey the deep history of suspicion with which many black folks view law enforcement, while also managing to score the episode’s biggest laughs. Meanwhile, Yara Shahidi — as eldest daughter Zoey — was especially raw as a young woman feeling utterly hopeless about how she could effect change personally and politically.

Perhaps the best part of the episode, though, was the way it didn’t flinch at the conflict between Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre (Anthony Anderson) over how — or even whether to — explain the unfolding news story to their pre-teen twins. The actors allowed the audience to feel the passion on both sides of a particularly charged argument: Bow wanting to keep hope and optimism alive for her littlest ones, and Dre unwilling to let said optimism blind them to the harsh realities of racism in modern America.

Dre’s speech about the hope the family felt about President Obama’s election — and the abject terror they felt during his inauguration, worrying that he could be assassinated and that racists would “snatch hope away from us like they always do” was a stunning crescendo to the story.

And while the Johnsons’ group outing to a downtown protest over the grand jury’s failure to indict put a convenient bow atop a difficult episode, it nevertheless seemed apt given the title: “Hope.”

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