I wasn’t sure what ABC meant when it kept touting in promo clips that viewers would see black-ish like they had never seen it before in the fourth season. Well I watched the premiere, and they were right. It turns out that the network was using coded language to say that black-ish is coming back Blacker than ever with its new season. Kenya Barris’ award-winning project — which examines Blackness from the perspective of a family that has achieved the American dream — was in rare form during the season 4 opener, and they were out to prove that Blackness can be explored on multiple levels.
Every episode of black-ish has it’s own theme, some of which are directly related to race, and others that aren’t. For the family patriarch Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), the most militant and socially conscious member of the Johnson family, everything is about race. Last night’s episode was no different. He and the rest of his family — wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis-Ross) with their infant, Pops (Laurence Fishburne), and Dre's two oldest children Junior (Marcus Scribner) and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) — attend a school play for his younger two children Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown). Their elementary school production is retelling of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America, and Dre has a clear problem with his children being forced to celebrate Columbus as a hero when he was the catalyst for colonisation and Native genocide.
The affront of Columbus Day is particularly upsetting to Dre because no official holiday exists to celebrate the abolition of slavery. He makes the case for a formalised celebration of Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday that commemorates the 19th June 1865, announcement that slavery had been abolished. Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Juneteenth marks the day that slaves learned of their overdue freedom. For three years, black-ish has dared to insert Black history and culture into mainstream portrayal of the American family, but this was one of the first deep dives into the legacy of slavery.
But what was even more poignant than Tuesday night’s theme was how they chose to tackle it. Taking off from Jack and Diane’s play, black-ish pivoted into a full musical, with the Johnson’s narrating their life as slaves using song and dance. It wasn’t the traditional style musical, either. The show was sung and rapped à la Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that has made hip-hop cool for the stuffy theatre crowd. One of black-ish’s on-stage numbers — yes, they were on an actual stage — even featured a cameo from Fonzworth Bentley.
And that wasn’t all. The Roots, legendary hip-hop collective and house band for Jimmy Fallon, produced a short musical number an animated segment. It was a hip-hop/slavery version of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just A Bill,” and I was ready to pay $1.29 to download it on iTunes. And Grammy nominated producer and R&B singer Aloe Blacc guest starred as himself, writing a socially conscious jingle for the ad firm where Dre works.
To put it plainly, last night’s black-ish was lit. It was a full-on celebration of Black history and culture. It’s going to be a hard act (literally) to follow for the rest of the season.