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Tracee Ellis Ross Breaks Down Directing ‘Black History Month’ Episode of ‘Black-ish’

For actress and producer Tracee Ellis Ross, stepping behind the camera for the second time to direct an episode of “Black-ish,” the ABC family comedy on which she stars, carried a lot of importance. Not only had she learned valuable lessons from the first experience (such as to slow down and allow herself as much coverage when she was acting in a scene as she was giving everyone else), but the episode, titled “Black History Month,” was one designed to educate about leading African-American players in history, both in dialogue and in stylized PSA-style segments featuring guest star Octavia Spencer.

“The message of the episode really is that we are a vast group of people that historically, in the present, and in the future that’s coming down the pike, there is more to share that could never fit into a month,” Ross tells Variety. “It’s not about celebrating for just one moment; it’s about liberating and empowering the different stories and different voices so we can all be lifted up by them as a culture — not just as black people.”

Originally, Ross reveals, her co-star Anthony Anderson was supposed to direct this episode, and she was set to helm the season finale. But they switched episodes due to scheduling issues.

“I was so glad to have done it,” she says. “It was a very challenging task, but it’s really exciting to tell a story in more ways than you get to as an actor. … I direct from my eyes and my mind and I asked from my gut and my heart.”

While Ross says, “the beauty of our show is that we have an extraordinary cast.” She also acknowledges that having so many talented people to service in a group scene is one of the challenges because it requires many different setups as the camera crew gets coverage of each individual from multiple angles. A large portion of “Black History Month” was devoted to one such scene, as the Johnson family sat in the living room discussing important African-American names in history that should be taught in schools, after the twins shared that their class pretty much only did reports on Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver.

“I really did cut to a lot of reactions, a lot of story beyond just what was written,” she says. “That was important to me.”

Ross reveals that one of her favorite parts of directing actually comes after the cameras stop rolling, when she is sitting in the editing room, reviewing all of the coverage she shot.

“It’s like when you buy a great pair of shoes and you buy a great pair of pants and when you go in the closet, you pull everything out and you make a great outfit and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s right,'” she explains. “You get to see the work and you put everything out and together. … I find it incredibly exciting.”

Another important part of the “Black History Month” puzzle was Spencer delivering facts about the people the Johnson family had just been discussing, including LeBron James and Lewis Howard Latimer.

“There are a handful of people who had the right kind of heart and gravitas who could work for the device that we were using,” Ross says of Spencer and the “old-school ‘The More You Know’ teaching vibe” she was going for in those moments.

Because “we wanted to keep the comedy up in the episode while still delivering important information,” Ross says, she focused on giving Spencer “different ideas of who she was talking” for each person about whom she was speaking. For one, Ross says, she told Spencer, “You’re talking to a locker room full of teenage boys,” while for another she said, “You’re talking to a room of society women with their pocketbooks at some fancy restaurant who have no idea who these people are that you’re sharing about,” and for another she said, “You’re talking to a room of senior citizens who experienced the Civil Rights Movement.”

“[It] completely changed the tone,” Ross admits. “She’s such a wonderful actress the cadence would change [and] the rhythm would change … and we got a whole bunch of different colors.”

Although the script had very specific people written for who the Johnson family would discuss and then who Dre (Anderson) would end up listing at the end of the episode, Ross admits some had to be left out due to the time constraints of a broadcast comedy. She made sure to make her mark by always shouting, “More women!” — and then making sure such women as Joycelyn Elders, the first African American appointed as the Surgeon General, actually made the final cut of the episode, though.

“I obviously cannot, will not, and have no interest in separating myself from being a black woman so my vantage point comes through that,” she says. “We want to encourage and love women of color directors, and we are continuing to make sure that there is inclusivity on all sides of the camera and all departments because we all have different blind spots, and the more that we create diversity in all aspects, we hope that we can actually have a true representation of humanity and of our history. And that’s not just as people of color, but that is of the human race: if you have a more diverse group of people telling their stories, you have less opportunity to miss those blind spots.”

Black-ish” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on ABC. Watch an exclusive clip from “Black History Month” below:

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