There’s good news coming on ABC’s “Black-ish”: Junior’s finally getting a girlfriend. But there’s a catch: She’s white — and his mother, Bow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, isn’t quite sure how she feels about it.
The episode, titled “Being Bow-racial” (scheduled to air Nov. 30), is also the first told from Bow’s perspective — Ross takes over the voice-over from Anthony Anderson (who plays her husband, Dre). That also means we get to explore more of her past through flashbacks — as well as an animation sequence, which delves into the historical context of interracial dating.
Ross, who is mixed-race like her character, says she was thrilled by the opportunity to dive into Bow’s backstory, as well as explore a complex issue thoughtfully as the show done so well in the past. “There was a lot of joy in the making of this episode as a lot of personal things were explored and discovered,” says Ross. “I found it so hilarious — and perfect.”
How did you find out about the episode?
I found out when I got the script the night before the table read. That’s the way it works on “Black-ish.” We do 24 episodes, so it’s a lot on our writers. We are in production moving at full speed. So by the time you get a script and have time to read it, it is often the night before the table read. It was a lovely surprise. I knew they were going to do a story about Bow’s biracialness. But I didn’t know how they were going to tell that story until I read the script.
What was your reaction to it?
I’m always pleasantly surprised with that tightrope our show walks with these heavier issues and still making it funny without making fun of the issues. I also love that my character is a flawed human being but not a broken person. And so I love that this thing comes up. It’s similar to what came up in the episode about the N word. You see an unexpected side of Bow where you go, “Why does she have an issue with that?” And she then has to explore something and it reveals something new about her. It’s one of the things that’s fun for me about playing her. Bow is not me. A lot of the things that Bow experiences, a lot of her point of view is not mine. That’s one of the things that’s fun to play as an actor. It’s one of the things that our show does incredibly well, exploring the different sides of how to respond to things.
Do you agree with her? Can you find common ground with her?
I find common ground in the feelings that she expresses. I don’t have children. I don’t know how I would feel if my child brought home a different race boyfriend or girlfriend. I don’t think I would have any issue with it. But I have no litmus test for that. What I thought was interesting is that in Bow’s reaction, we actually got to explore something interesting which is the nuance of what it is to be mixed in this country. And the complexity of that. It is not the same for everybody. One can even surprise oneself in how you respond to something that you think you would have no problem with, and not even know why you’re having that response. What I love what our show does is that it gives us a chance to explore and pull it apart and have some growth and listen to what other people’s points of view are. And I think that’s interesting. The bottom line is what I agreed with is that Bow goes through an evolution to explore not only for herself but for the audience a very complex and nuanced situation that many people are walking through in this country.
What did it mean to you to get to take over the show from your point of view?
I loved doing all the flashback stuff that Anthony usually gets to do. It harkened back to my days of “Girlfriends” where the story is being told through my eyes. It’s the future of what a show like ours offers because all of the characters are so strong and clear and interesting that it means that stories could be told through any of the characters’ eyes. The storyline and premise of the show is through Dre’s eyes but it’s a testament to the writers that they have continued to develop these interesting characters in all of us. It’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting playing this revolutionary wife on television. The story is not told through my eyes and yet this character is a very full person. The show is traditional in that the story is told through Dre but it’s untraditional in that whenever we see this woman she is full. You can tell that offscreen, she has a very full and very experienced life that she is living. And it’s not that she is living it through her husband’s eyes. Or living it through being a mother. She’s living it through being a full person. And I think this storyline is testament to that. A wonderful thing in the context of us exploring a very specific point of view through Dre. We’re exploring the idea of being a black man in this country as more than he was raised with and giving his children a different life than he was raised with. but there’s so much more in the “black-ish” experience.
Did you talk to Anthony at all about this episode?
None. Definitely not with Anthony. Our work together happens in the moment. We don’t usually talk about what’s happening with our characters. There’s a magic that happens between he and I that’s based in such a respect and love for each other that it translates into the characters. It just is what it is. It happened in the audition.
What about (showrunner) Kenya Barris?
Kenya, early on in the season, before I even knew this [episode] was happening, asked when I filled out my college essays or work applications, did I check black or white, and I said I used to check both. I think that was a question they used to ask throughout the writers room with some of the other mixed people in the room because there are quite a few, and their answer was quite similar. That comes up in one of the flashbacks. I stopped by the writers’ room at one point, and they were intensely breaking this story. I did not know they were breaking my story – I just stopped by to say hi. We had a mini conversation about my experiences being mixed. But the story had already been broken so none of that went in. What I was told after the fact was that I confirmed a lot of what they had already been writing. I think they did a wonderful job of not expressing my experience or any one individual’s experience of being mixed. Instead what they did was find this amazing way of not answering any one question or trying to speak for any one person, but instead laying out the nuance of the experience.
The show really has found a remarkable way to strike that balance — to talk about issues while still being a “comedy.”
A lot of it has to do with the connection in the writers room and the specificity of the story that they’re telling. The more truthful and specific that you get, the more universal it becomes. The experience of being a mixed person is all over the place — one of my best friends is Chinese and Italian; my other best friend is Lebanese and Trinidadian. The mix of heritage, culture or identity is something that our country is built on. Despite what this election shows, that’s the direction this country is moving. We’re becoming more mixed. There’s a way that they’re leaning into the specifics of what they’re telling that makes it feel so universal that allows for the truth of the comedy that happens in life. Not making fun of what we’re talking about but how you make sense of it.
Some of these heavy issues, they bring an absurdity to them. I think our writers are really good at tapping into that. The premise of our show is very simple in its essence: It’s a multigenerational family comedy that is character driven. The writers are very clear on the voices of each of these characters. And so as a result, when you drop whatever it is in the center of this family, it gets to bounce up against who these people are. And that in and of itself, offers the contrast that makes the comedy. The different generational point of views, the difference in the way Dre and Bow were raised, the difference in how they see blackness, what they see as important about that. The writers have really leaned into that in a way that they’re trusting what they’re doing in the same way as actors are trusting what we’re doing — in the same way that Anthony and I don’t have to have major conversations about what we’re exploring as characters. We kind of lean into the truth of what we’re feeling in the moment with each other using the lines as our guide.
What can you reveal about the animation in the episode?
In the election episode and in the Valentine’s episode, we do some of these animation pieces where we tell some of the heavier stuff or historical stuff or allow context to certain things through animation. I think it is incredibly well handled. With some of the heavier lifting that you can’t really do through the dialogue, which would become very expositional, they do it through animation. It creates a lightness and an ability for the audience to take a deep breath and be objective and just see the historical context of this specific situation. I’m really looking forward to how they pull the whole thing together.