A year ago, “Black-ish” aired an episode that showed Rainbow and Dre Johnson talking to their children about incidents of police brutality. At the time, creator Kenya Barris said it was hard to balance the show’s aspirational tone with the difficult subject matter. Before that episode aired (to much critical acclaim, as it happened), Barris worried about whether he’d gotten that tricky mixture right.
The ABC comedy’s Jan. 11, 2017, installment was even scarier to write, says Barris. In the episode, Dre and his colleagues and family react to the election of Donald Trump — with stunned pain and confusion.
“I’m even more nervous with this one,” Barris tells Variety.
Barris locked himself away over the Thanksgiving weekend to knock out the script. For the first time, he’s both writing and directing an installment of the comedy — that’s how important this episode is to him. As is typical on “Black-ish,” the half-hour explores all points of view: Members of the Johnson family and employees at Dre’s workplace air strong and distinct perspectives — and they also hear from a Trump voter.
About reading the script that Barris crafted, “Black-ish” star and executive producer Anthony Anderson says, “I thought it spoke to a majority of the people that I knew, in terms of their shock and utter disbelief that Donald Trump is our president-elect, based on everything leading up to the election — the things that he said, the things that he tweeted.”
The episode, which is titled “Lemons,” “spoke to those concerns, spoke to those questions, spoke to that disbelief, spoke to that trepidation that people have going forward,” Anderson adds. “It captured not only the voice of Andre, but also the voice of concerned Americans, and the voice of those who are also pro-Trump. This isn’t an anti-Trump script at all. It’s just a script about our reality in terms of what this election meant to us and what it means moving forward for the next four years.”
Johnson family members share their opinions about the election — and Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) tries to make a difference by giving money to environmentally and socially aware charities, so much so that her wardrobe consists of giveaway swag. But much of the episode takes place at Dre’s workplace, the advertising agency Lido and Stevens, as employees try to process the results of the vote. “That office is a microcosm of the world in which we live,” Anderson says.
The cascading and colliding reactions at the ad firm reflect what happened in the “Black-ish” writers’ room after Nov. 8, recalls Barris.
“We all were downloading our feelings and our anger and our emotions, and there was a day I kind of snapped,” Barris says. “I was as upset as anyone. And I felt like I was talking to people who, for the most part, had never taken a gut punch, in terms of what this country had presented to them. I snapped in a way to say, ‘Snap out of it. This is the time to stop pouting and complaining, and let’s go do something about it.’”
“Everybody wants to get into a fight until they get hit,” Barris adds. “And I was like, ‘We got hit. Now you’ve got 12 more rounds. What are you going to do?’”
That moment in the “Black-ish” writers room became the basis of a pivotal scene in the episode, which was turned around much more quickly than most sitcom installments. Barris notes that ABC fully supported doing an episode on the election; its only concerns revolved around hitting tight deadlines, which the cast and crew managed, not without some challenges along the way.
Storylines involving the Lido and Stevens staff usually aren’t as prominent as they are in “Lemons,” and as it happened, needing so much time with those actors caused scheduling headaches. One result of those complications was that, with little warning, Dre’s big speech in “Lemons” got moved up a day, and the prep time Anderson thought he’d have for that moment evaporated.
On set, Anderson tried to capture the speech several times, but struggled to master it before taking a 20-minute break. He came back and nailed the monologue immediately, eliciting applause from the cast and crew.
“Anthony has, I believe a photographic memory,” Barris says. “I don’t know if he would call it that, but he is able to memorize something the way that I’ve never seen an actor that I’ve worked with be able to do.”
Between scenes, Anderson notes he’s no stranger to Trump: Years ago, when he lived in New York, he golfed with the president-elect, and he and Barris met him at a White House Correspondents Dinner two years ago. At that event, they reminded Trump that around the time of the comedy’s 2014 premiere, he’d tweeted: “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled ‘Blackish’? Can you imagine the furor of a show, ‘Whiteish’! Racism at highest level?”
Anderson says that, in person, Trump was “diplomatic in his response to us.” But when it came “Lemons,” the gloves came off.
“During this election, I think the veil of what’s going on in this country that we rarely talk about — racism, sexism, homophobia, classism — all of that was unveiled,” Anderson says. “The veil was just pulled back. There it is in its pure and raw form, bubbling. What does that mean for our society? It will be interesting to see.”
Since its inception, “Black-ish” has energetically taken on topical and controversial issues; it has had characters debate and discuss everything from the n-word to gun ownership to corporal punishment in the home. And that’s why, before he even talked to Barris to get his take on the outcome of the presidential contest, Anderson knew the “Black-ish” creator would end up writing about it.
“Kenya and I are both huge Norman Lear fans,” says Anderson. “You look at ‘All in the Family,’ you look at ‘Good Times.’ You look at ‘The Jeffersons’ and the social impact that these shows had, and the subject matter that they talked about, especially 30, 35 years ago. You don’t see television like that today. That’s what was missing for us, and that’s what we wanted to do. We didn’t just want to be a family comedy show. We wanted to be substantive and have a conscience and have something to say, without beating you over the head with a message.”
Barris notes that trying to give a voice to a Trump voter in the episode “was not very well-received at the table read.” But Barris, who talked to a Trump supporter before writing “Lemons,” felt it was important to get that kind of input.
“When I was talking to her, I was like, ‘You’re the reason this conversation is so hard to have,’” Barris says. “Because from my personal point of view, it just felt like someone who was just making a case for anything that they wanted to, regardless of logic.”
And while he disagrees with the choice Trump voters made, he said he knows what it’s like to feel powerless and to live “check to check.”
“Growing up in the ’hood, I know what it’s like to feel like shit’s not going to change for you. And I know what a desperate place that can put you in,” Barris says. In his research and reading after the election, “I dug deep and I found that there were people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump — because they saw what they believed was going to be hope and change, and under Obama, their particular lives did not change.”
Of course, one episode of TV won’t bridge the enormous chasms between huge factions of Americans who see the world very differently. But Barris says he believes those who voted for Trump and those who did not will have to learn how to talk to each other. “We have to have more conversations,” Barris says. “We can’t be blindsided like this again.”
Does he hope other TV writers help kickstart those conversations?
“One hundred percent,” Barris says. “One hundred percent. One hundred percent.”