The Culture First Look

How 'Black-ish' tackled political polarization in a Trump-themed episode

ABC's acclaimed comedy 'Black-ish' addressed post-election polarization on Wednesday, calling for more understanding and communication between Americans with differing political views. 

Actors from the comedy series 'Black-ish' (l. to r.) Deon Cole, Anthony Anderson, Marsai Martin, Marcus Scribner, Yara Shahidi, Miles Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross along with series creator Kenya Barris pose in the press room with the award for outstanding comedy series at the 46th NAACP Image Awards at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on Friday, Feb. 6, 2015, in Pasadena, Calif.
Arnold Turner/Invision/AP/File
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"America has a love affair with upsets," said Andre "Dre" Johnson, portrayed by actor Anthony Anderson, in the opening voice-over of Wednesday night's episode of ABC's "Black-ish." "But what happens when the losers and winners are supposed to be on the same side? We seem to be more openly divided than we’ve been in a long time." 

The voice-over articulated the underlying question driving the episode, titled "Lemons": How do we heal a fractured America as one of the most polarizing presidents in US history prepares to take office? 

The episode, which takes place eight weeks after the election, features political debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters at the advertising agency where Dre works, tensions in his son Andre's high school classroom (where students chant "Send her back!" at their Spanish teacher), and differing reactions to President-elect Trump's victory among members of the TV family. It concludes with a call for understanding, hope, and increased communication between Americans with differing political views.  

Drawing on the narrative theme of the episode's title, Dre's daughter, Zoey, makes lemonade for her classmates, telling her mother, Bow: "It’s not liberal lemonade. It’s not conservative lemonade. It’s just lemonade that I made with love. That’s what I want my contribution to be – love." 

Kenya Barris, the creator of "Black-ish," told the Los Angeles Times that he hoped "Lemons" would spark conversation. 

"We have to find a way to reach out to each other and find common ground," he said. "Or else we’re literally never going to make it and this country is going to get worse." 

The episode came days after actress Meryl Streep called on the film and television industry to act as a unifying force in a divided America, as Jessica Mendoza and Harry Bruinius reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this week: 

[B]ehind the social media furor sparked by Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes is a bigger question: Can Hollywood – with its current blockbuster, give-fans-what-they-want financial model – continue to act as a force for change in today’s America?

Entertainment – music, movies, novels, and TV – has historically played a key part in normalizing new ideas and driving social change. But shifts in technology and culture have put more pressure, especially on the film industry, to come up with products meant to please rather than challenge, media analysts say.

In calling for a more meaningful and empathetic approach to storytelling, the multiple-Oscar-winning Ms. Streep told her colleagues that both film and television need to continue to act as change agents, even in the face of such pressures. And with audiences propelled toward an era of both diversity and division, experts say, the task may be as important as ever.

Shortly after Donald Trump was voted into office, the "Black-ish" creator told NPR that the election outcome had altered the direction of the show's third season. 

"From Tuesday night to Wednesday morning, I think my show changed," Mr. Barris said. "[W]e were like, you know what? We have to talk about things that people might not want to talk about openly. But we have to dig in deeper and stay later and have more real conversations and argue amongst ourselves more and really bring our emotions to the surface and really say things that people want to hear – have said. We have to do that more. We have a responsibility. It's not just TV for us anymore."

Ultimately, viewers will determine the extent to which film and television creators can act as change agents, industry experts say. 

"Those political tensions and aspirations have always existed in Hollywood, but their role in shaping content is always mediated through the marketplace," Aram Sinnreich, professor of communications at American University in Washington, D.C., and a research fellow at its Center for Media & Social Impact, told the Monitor. "So ultimately if we, the viewing public, are interested in seeing Hollywood fulfill Meryl Streep’s hope of a more empathetic, more inclusive medium, people need to vote with their wallets." 

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