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'Black-ish' Opens Conversation About Race And Police Brutality


Something unusual happened last week on network TV. It was Wednesday's episode of the ABC hit show "Black-ish." And as they do, the Johnson family was sitting around in their living room. But instead of talking about their kids' latest travails at school with some kind of laugh track underneath, as is standard family sitcom fare, the Johnson family was watching TV coverage of police violence against an unarmed black teenager. And that provoked a talk that black families in this country know all too well.


JENIFER LEWIS: (As Ruby) Listen to me. If you have to talk to the cops, there's only seven words you need to know - yes sir, no sir, and thank you, sir.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS: (As Rainbow) Exactly. You make sure you live to fight your case in court.

MARTIN: We called up creator Kenya Barris to ask how he put the episode together. He joins me now on the line. Thanks so much for being with us, Kenya.

KENYA BARRIS: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: It's a pretty devastating scene with a level of authenticity and a kind of emotional intensity that I personally don't remember seeing on network TV. Can you walk me through how it came to be?

BARRIS: It really started pretty much like the episode did. I was watching the Ferguson indictment with my family. And my second youngest son turned around and he said - why these people so mad? And my natural inclination was to want to dive in and give him all the experiences that I've had growing up. And my wife and I - we talked, and we realized that it's not actually fair because that's not his reality, or hopefully, that's going to be his reality. So it was, like, this balancing act that we sort of had to dive into. And we realized that a lot of families - black, white or whatever - probably are having to have that same kind of conversation, and that's kind of what - how the episode came about for me.

MARTIN: The show has taken on a lot of issues that affect black America in particular. Did you always know that, eventually, you were going to write this kind of scene about this kind of issue, police brutality?

BARRIS: I mean, I think for us the biggest thing is we want to tell a story that's specific to this family. But in telling stories that are specific to this family, what we've kind of began to see is that they speak to everyone, not just to black families, but to families in general. And I knew that I - how I wanted to tell the story was I wanted people to sort of be a fly on a wall of a conversation, you know, in that living room, sort of feeling claustrophobic, but at the same time feeling like they were a part of that conversation with the family.

MARTIN: What's also interesting is how you balance the comedy with the soberness of the material, right. I mean, this is what you do. This is what you're good at. But this is such a grave scene, the subject material, but it's still really funny. I mean, at one point, Jack doesn't know what being unarmed means. He thinks it's literally having no arms.

BARRIS: (Laughter) Right.

MARTIN: Did it come pretty naturally to you to feel out the boundaries of what was funny in something so serious?

BARRIS: I think that was, honestly, the hardest part of the episode for me personally. It wasn't our natural sort of comedic fare. We had much heavier and more of those moments within - throughout the episode, but we knew that we wanted to make sure that comedy - because I think comedy is an amazing filter - to really have real conversations with. We wanted to make sure that the comedy was there so that it gave people the entry point in and out of the subject.

MARTIN: Do you think this was a one-off, or is this going to be an issue that you're going to pick up again in some way?

BARRIS: I don't know. I mean, one of the big things with me is I don't want to politicize the show. One of the things that we want to do, rather than sort of being a political pulpit of show, we really just want to start conversations that people have. The way the show is made is - there are so many different points of view within that household. And they - you know, they present their cases based upon what their aggregate of their experiences are. And we sort of leave the viewer with a lot of different things to think about.

To answer whether or not this is a one-off, I don't know. The way we try to tell these stories are we talk about what this family would naturally be talking about, you know. And I think that this family has spoken about this for the moment, at least to America.

MARTIN: Kenya Barris heads up the ABC sitcom "Black-ish." He joined us on the line to talk about their most recent episode. Kenya, thanks so much for taking the time.

BARRIS: Absolutely. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.