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‘Black-ish’ delves into ‘Black Lives Matter’ with police brutality episode

On Wednesday's episode of ABC's

On Wednesday's episode of ABC's "black-ish," Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) are conflicted about how best to field their children's questions in the midst of a highly-publicized court case involving alleged police brutality and an African-American teenager. Credit: ABC / Patrick Wymore

WHEN | WHERE: Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on ABC/7

GRADE: A

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Andre Johnson Jr. (Marcus Scribner) has been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, just as a decision about whether to indict a cop in the shooting of an unarmed black man is announced on TV. The crowd on TV is angry. Andre’s kid brother, Jack (Miles Brown) wants to know, “why are people so mad?” Dre (Anthony Anderson) glances at the set and sighs. In voice-over, he says: “At some point, whether we like it or not, our kids will have questions that we have to answer.”

The episode, entitled, “Hope,” does. Pretty soon, the entire family is gathered around the set, including Pops (Laurence Fishburne), his wife Ruby (Jenifer Lewis), Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross), and teen Zoey (Yara Shahidi) as well as Jack’s twin sister, Diane (Marsai Martin).

Then, the decision comes down: No indictment.

MY SAY: “black-ish” really steps into it Wednesday night. Not around it, or over it, or through it, but right into it -- “Black Lives Matter,” police brutality, the fraught past, the fraught present. Even National Book Award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “The Beautiful Struggle,” steps into it with this episode (not as a cameo, but only a moral guiding force). Coates after all once wrote, “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. “ He may as well have starred in “Hope.”

Episodes like this can go straight to the pulpit, with club in hand, ready to smite the offending world. Or they can go to a different place -- of understanding and even illumination. “Hope” goes to the second place for the most part. The result is a high-water mark for the series, easily so.

Viewers will likely approach this episode with two different mindsets, and it’s probably fair to say those mindsets will likely be determined by their race. Many black viewers will probably nod in approval, or laugh -- ruefully. Many white viewers will say, what’s the big deal? “Hope” goes a long way toward explaining what that deal is.

In fact, the series is set up as a range of polarities -- past versus future, children versus adults, hope versus despair -- and struggles toward some middle ground. Rainbow also represents one extreme, as a voice of restraint. She’s the one who basically supports the justice system, who says -- in effect -- “wait a minute! Let’s get the fact straight.” It’s a position fans of this show would fully expect her to take. She wants to hold on to the idea that there is hope, if only for her children, and looking at her own life, she knows that to be true. Looking at the TV set, she’s not so sure.

Dre takes the extreme opposite, but still meets her halfway, sort of.

There’s a powerful moment in this play-in-miniature that arrives in the third act. Dre’s heard all of what Rainbow has to say, or absorbed it, then brings her back to the Obama inauguration, and that famous photo-op when the new president was walking down Connecticut Avenue.

“You were terrified when you saw that,” he tells her. “That someone was going to snatch that hope away from us like they always do. That’s the real world our children need to know about, that’s the world they live in.” Anderson’s eyes fill with tears as he says this -- real tears, you suspect, and not the sort learned in acting class.

But “Hope” works best as a balancing act, with a serious line offset with a funny one, right up to Dre’s emotional release. “Hope” uses humor to insinuate its message, then drive a nail into it. As protests break out, Ruby tells the family to batten down the hatches, and grab the bottle of vodka, “to drink and wash your hands with.” Dre challenges Pops who claims he was once a Black Panther.” Dre: “You weren’t a Panther. You were a Bobcat.” Pops: “We were Panther adjacent.”

When Rainbow challenges Dre on his anti-cop rhetoric -- “you’re on a first-name basis with every cop on the beat” -- there’s a cutaway to Dre under the bedcovers, calling his pals, the police: “Officer Joe, can you come over? I heard a noise downstairs.”

“Hope” officially comes by its name in the final act. Oldest daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) despairs of the future, until her kid brother and sister, twins Jack and Diane, tell her she can’t. They’ve always looked up to her as an inspiration, they say, and she suddenly sees her role as Big Sis in a whole different light.

And that’s your final, all-family sitcom beat. In voice-over, Dre says, “As a parent, it’s hope we pray we can pass on to our children. But it’s them who give YOU hope.”

BOTTOM LINE: “black-ish” tackles a tough subject, while staying funny and on-point.

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