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How ‘black-ish’ unpacks hard topics with humor and nuance

Digesting serious issues through comedy is like taking medicine with a spoonful of sugar, says Tracee Ellis Ross. “Black-ish,” the hit sitcom that stars Ross, doesn’t shy away from controversial issues, especially racism. Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with the actor to discuss the show and how it dives into vital, uncomfortable discussions.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, as part of our ongoing Race Matters series focusing on solutions, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has a second part of her conversation with Golden Globe-winning actress Tracee Ellis Ross.

    Last week, they talked about the momentum behind the Time’s Up movement supporting women.

    Tonight, Charlayne examines the popular TV series “Black-ish” starring Ellis Ross and how it handles race. The daughter of singer Diana Ross, Ellis Ross plays Rainbow Johnson, or just plain Bow.

  • Actor:

    I joined the Young Republicans club at school.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    “Black-ish” is a comedy, to be sure, but it doesn’t shy away from controversial issues, especially racism, taking on the N-word, biracial Bow, confused about her identity, and going to extremes to fit in with both black and white friends.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Those were my friends.

  • Actress:

    Were they?

  • Actress:

    You should, like, totally audition for the theater this year. They could really use some strong black actors. Toodles.

  • Actor:

    A flying monkey? Why did you agree to do it?

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

     Admittedly, mistakes were made. But if you were in that situation, you just — you overcompensate. You do what you can to fit in.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Then there was a debate about the lack of justice for African-Americans in the criminal justice system-

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    But, you guys, despite its flaws, we still have the best justice system in the whole world. We just have to have faith that it’s going to work itself out.

  • Actor:

    Right. And why should we listen to you again, Bow? Because you just assured us that these men would be brought to justice.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Because I hoped that they would.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And “Black-ish” even took head on the racial divisions generated by the 2016 election.

  • Actress:

    So, can someone explain how 53 percent of white women voted for the orange (EXPLETIVE DELETED) grabber?

  • Actor:

    I have always said, the American white woman is as fickle as a pinot noir.

  • Actress:

    Well, first, white women aren’t sisters. We hate each other. And, second, if you must know, I voted for Trump.

    (SHOUTING)

  • Actor:

    Pinot noir.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Thank you for joining us now as Tracee Ellis Ross.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Thank you for having me. I’m happy to switch roles into this person.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Good. Well, I like both, actually.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I want to take you way back to when “Black-ish” first started. It’s now going into its fourth season.

    Was there a conscious decision to take on controversial issues, especially like race and racism?

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Our show is consciously authentic and consciously honest. And a lot of the subject matter that we courageously dive into does end up coming across that way.

    I think that they are topics that are uncomfortable for people. They are topics that are — need to be unpacked and discussed, and I think that’s why they’re uncomfortable for people.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I just wonder why they think that these heady issues can be addressed through comedy.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    When one’s heart is open through laughter, so much more information can be received.

    I think it’s like giving people their medicine with a spoon full of sugar, you know, or giving your dog its antibiotics in peanut butter, you know?

    (LAUGHTER)

  •  Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Right.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    So, you can think of our show as peanut butter. It makes things more receivable. There is an ability to have an open heart while receiving things. And it makes them digestible in a way that, when you’re getting punched in the face, sometimes, it’s not as easy, because you’re busy defending yourself and protecting yourself.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I read somewhere — I think it was an interview with Kenya Barris — he said, “Even when digging deeper means arguing among ourselves, this — especially after the 2016 election.”

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Yes.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And that was one of the episodes that I thought was so powerful.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    “Lemons,” yes.

    I thought it was a really powerful episode. And it did what we often do on our show, which I think is a part of the DNA of our show, in that we don’t answer a question.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Exactly.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    One of the ways I like to look at it is, I feel like there’s a lot of things that are on the wallpaper of our lives in this country that we don’t really notice anymore, or we are not forced to think about.

    And then there’s some of those things that we are forced to think about, but they’re on the wallpaper of our lives, to the point that we don’t always unpack them. We just keep it moving.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    It’s comedy, and yet it’s not always funny, but is that helping an audience to decide some of these complicated issues, you think?

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    We all look at these things from very different points of view, but what we end up with is not division, but connection.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    I also read — and this was a — you may not even remember this, but it was in The New York Times some months ago. It was a feature on you. You were in New York, and you talked about how these young white boys come up to you and…

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Yes, and I find it so wonderful.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And they’re such big fans.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    You know, I think it’s really interesting, because, again, I don’t — I am not a fan of categorizing race in that way.

    But in the specificity of them watching our show, which is unpacking racial identity and cultural identity for this black family, the Johnsons, and when I think of the subject matter that we have addressed, both from the N-word, to police brutality, to being biracial, and then I think of a young white boy who already is immersed in a culture that has music using the N-word or whatever those different things are, but then to be able to watch our show and have, for example, the historical context and relevance of the N-word to be unpacked in a way that I don’t think anywhere else in our culture is that something that is being unpacked.

    I’m very intrigued by my character and the expansive way that I am able to breathe my life into a wife on television, and that…

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    A wife who’s a professional.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Yes, I mean, but that’s not even what’s interesting. It’s she’s more than that. The story is told traditionally the way a sitcom is told. It’s told through the husband’s eyes. But Bow is not wife wallpaper in her husband’s world.

    I don’t think it’s current. I actually think it’s timeless. I think it is about time that television and our industry and our world wake up to the actual balance that exists.

    I mean, for me, one of my experiences is, you know, I have many a black woman and woman in my life that is the lead in their life, that is living their own life, and doing it their own way, and who is a doctor and a mother and a wife and a friend and a daughter and a sister and all a — of those things, and a co-worker and all of that.

    So I don’t think that I’m playing something that’s new or current. I actually think it might be new for television, but it’s not new for life.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    And what do you hope people who are concerned about race and racism take away from this show?

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    The humanity involved is actually what moves the scale, like, actually being able to see each other as human beings, beyond ideas and concepts.

    And I think our show unpacks that really well.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Do you ever encounter negative reactions from people when you’re off the set and out in the public, or is it all positive?

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    No, I mean, the one — you know, I have heard, very interestingly, people say things like, “I had no idea I would like your show.”

    And I always — because that’s the kind of person I am, I’m always, like, “Why? Why didn’t you think you would like it?”

    “Well, you know, the title.”

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    And I’m, like, “Oh, well, what did the title mean to you, that you wouldn’t like it?”

    “Well, I thought it was just going to be just about like black people” or something, like, that it was unidentifiable. Or, “I mean, it’s so funny. You guys, I’m so — my family is so much like yours,” you know, as if it’s surprising.

    And — but that’s the beauty of it. I think that’s the beauty of it. That is the beauty of comedy. And people seem to be moved and changed by it, and I love that. It’s a very rewarding thing.

    I mean, you can just make entertainment, you can make people laugh, and that, in and of itself is a gift and a really joyful part of the job that I have. But to also make people think is also really cool, and to make people talk and have conversations about things that they wouldn’t normally talk about.

  • Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

    Well, Tracee Ellis Ross, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Tracee Ellis Ross:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You can find more stories from our Race Matters Solutions series online at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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