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Black-ish lets the family talk candidly about police brutality

The Johnson family, glued to the news.
The Johnson family, glued to the news.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 20 through February 27, 2016, is "Hope," the 16th episode of the second season of ABC's Black-ish.

"Hope" is an astonishingly good episode of television, frank yet funny in a way that shows Black-ish at its very best.

While the installment was talked up beforehand as "the police brutality episode," "Hope" is less about spreading awareness of brutality than it is about considering how people react to that brutality, how they talk about it, and, yes, how that consideration and that discussion weigh more heavily on black families than white families could ever know.

Written by Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, "Hope" is carefully calibrated and passionately produced. It keeps the entire Johnson family together in the living room, glued to news coverage of an incoming verdict on a case of a police officer shooting "McQuillian," an unarmed black man.

The McQuillian case is fictional, treated as an amalgam of several high profile deaths: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland. In an increasingly depressing run, the Johnson family tries to remember which case McQuillian's actually is, since they're having trouble keeping track of the many instances of unarmed black people dying at the hands of the police.

Then when the police officer in question is found not guilty despite what Bow calls irrefutable evidence to the contrary, anger and confusion crash into each other, and the characters find themselves filled with helpless frustration.

"Hope" is about a family grappling with hard truths

Now deep into Black-ish's second season, the cast members have settled into their roles with ease. And nothing shows off an ensemble's talents quite like an episode that keeps everyone in the same location (also known as a "bottle episode"), the better to let them bounce off each other. In "Hope," this means three generations of Johnsons parse their feelings on McQuillian, their fears, and even their hopes.

As the show's central characters, conflicted parents Dre and Bow, Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross offer brilliant performances that build on 40 episodes of character development.

The two love each other's frankness, but have always approached their lives from vastly different viewpoints. Dre grew up in Compton with aggressive parents (Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis) who learned through experience not to trust authority. Bow, meanwhile, grew up in a biracial, hippie household. So she just wants everybody to get along.

When the Johnsons face up to the McQuillian case, the pair's clashing perspectives on how to deal with it make perfect sense. Though their older son is off reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, Bow doesn't want to freak out Jack and Diane, her younger kids, before they're ready to handle some of the world's harder truths; she just wants them to have a childhood free of fear. But Dre thinks keeping them in the dark just makes them more vulnerable, and that it's just about impossible to shield kids from tough topics when the news and internet can bring it all up in an instant.

Grandma Ruby (Lewis) gives it to Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) straight.

Of course, their arguments over how to handle it all happen while Jack and Diane are in the same room, so it doesn't take long before they overhear some sensitive information and panic. One of the episode's funniest moments — because, yes, "Hope" is also very funny — comes when Diane calls out her parents on pretending like they aren't there when they can hear them perfectly well, thanks. But when Bow finally gives in and tells the twins how to talk to a police officer if they ever need to ("yes sir," "no sir"), it's just heartbreaking.

Dre and Bow's disagreements take up much of the episode, but there's still room for other members of the family to register reactions all across the spectrum. There's eldest son Junior, throwing out lines from Coates's Between the World and Me and mulling over the idea of joining a growing protest downtown. This prompts Zoey, Black-ish's resident texting teen, to have an uncharacteristic breakdown that reveals her bone-deep worry that her brother could be the next face on the news. Meanwhile, the teens' grandparents ready themselves for the riots they remember, with Ruby (Lewis) going into full-on survivor mode, rationing and all.

These clashing reactions feel entirely natural; they're as messy and candid as you might expect when discussing something so contentious within your own family. But the reason "Hope" can run on a constant push and pull between disparate perspectives is because Barris's script is so strong.

It lets each character have a moment to express themselves candidly, but it doesn't pretend that there's an easy fix to a conflict like Dre and Bow's. Barris has nodded in interviews to Norman Lear's legacy as a particular inspiration — as has NBC's similarly honest sitcom The Carmichael Show, which also had a fantastic episode centered on Black Lives Matter last August. "Hope" is Black-ish's best showcase for that approach yet.

The episode's standout scene comes when it reveals why Dre lost his hope

The most remarkable moment in an episode full of them, though, comes when Dre finally bursts out of his usual talking points and lets loose some frustration so real that he tears up in abject frustration. It's a titanic performance from Anderson, whose outrage usually veers in a more cartoonish direction. But in "Hope," it finds a foothold in a way that made me sit up straight, chills running down my back.

"Do you remember when Obama got inaugurated?" he asks Bow, and the immediate reaction on her face reveals that she knows exactly where he's going with this (again, Ross crushes it). "Remember when he got elected, and we felt like maybe, just maybe, we got out of that bad place and maybe to a good place? That the whole country was really ready to turn the corner?"

From there, Black-ish cuts to footage of President Obama walking to his 2009 inauguration, Dre's monologue layered on top. Blackish will frequently cut to footage like this when Anderson's voiceover wants to make a point. That can be a cheesy device, but it's used to devastating effect here.

"We saw him get out of that limo and walk alongside of it and wave to the crowd," he says to Bow. "Tell me that you weren’t terrified when you saw that. Tell me that you weren’t worried that someone was gonna snatch that hope away from us like they always do."

It's a stark, powerful moment, that gets to the root of why Dre is how he is — and why it's so important to him that his children are aware of the world they live in. It's also a moment that I, frankly, can't fully appreciate; my family doesn't have this history. So here, I'll turn to Pilot Viruet, whose AV Club recap of "Hope" speaks from a much more personal place than I ever could:

In that scene, Black-ish articulated something that I felt during the inauguration — this overwhelming fear that something would happen to Obama because that horror and fear is ingrained in my DNA — that I had never said out loud, let alone seen reflected on a Wednesday night ABC sitcom.

"Hope" is a conversation. It's one that simply couldn't have happened if people without more at stake here — particularly white people — had tried to write it.

When we talk about needing more "diversity" in Hollywood, this is the kind of episode that proves why it's so crucial. After all, what's the point of having a conversation if only one side gets the mic?

Black-ish airs Wednesday nights at 9:30 pm on ABC. Previous episodes are available on Hulu.

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