'Black-ish' Co-Showrunner Kenny Smith and Writer Peter Saji Tackle Colorism In "Black Like Us"

January 15th 2019

Since the sitcom first aired in 2014, ABC’s Black-ish has been unapologetically examining what it means to be B;ack in America today.The show stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, as Dre and Rainbow Johnson, upper-class Black Angelenos raising their five children.  With episodes that explored slavery—like the famous "Juneteenth" episode from Season 4 and the Season 3 episode “Lemons,” which centered around the abysmal 2016 election and its results, Black-ish has never shied away from the topics that sting us to our core.

In the upcoming episode, "Black Like Us," the series is tacking another topic that society and the Black community has been wrestling with for generations—colorism.

In the episode, Dre and Bow are disgusted when they discover that their youngest daughter Diane (Marsai Marin) was not correctly lit in her class photo. Though Bow and Dre want to address the school with their grievances, Diane wants to let it all blow over, resulting in a heart-wrenching dialogue about colorism among the Johnson clan.

BLACK-ISH - "Black Like Us" | ABC/Ron Tom BLACK-ISH - "Black Like Us" | ABC/Ron Tom

Ahead of the episode's premiere, Shadow and Act spoke with executive producer and co-showrunner Kenny Smith and executive producer and scribe Peter Saji, the duo who also penned the viral “Juneteenth” and “Purple Rain” episodes.

"Colorism is a topic that is very prevalent in not only the Black community, but the Latin community, Asian community, and the Indian community," Saji implored. "It’s something we had talked about doing for five seasons, but it's a very emotionally charged issue, so it got put off because we knew it would be a lot of work, and if done incorrectly, there's a lot of opportunity to get dragged on the internet."

With just 21 minutes of story and dialogue to address colorism which has such a deep-seated and painful history, both Saji and Smith knew they needed the right entry point into the conversation. When dark skin and how it’s filmed and photographed came up in a conversation, the pair knew they had stumbled upon the right angle. "We figured, ‘Okay. This is a way that it could work and we could find a balance so that all people in the communities feel heard,'" Saji explained. "We decided to go for it."

"Black Like Us" is a striking episode because it creates a throughline across generations examining Grandma Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) and Diane’s experiences as dark skinned women at different points in time. "That's something I think a lot of people can relate to," Smith reflected. "There’s also the idea of dealing with colorism and what a child's been going through. With older people that you can brush it off and say, 'Oh, that's just their baggage of life,' but with Diane, it's, 'Oh no. She's a child. This is all new to her and this is how it affects her and hurts her.' It was a great way to explain things for people who may not even be familiar with colorism. The Ruby aspect came up later. We thought it would be a nice way to understand where some of her rational has come from, where some of her beliefs have come from. Some of her pain has come out in ways through jokes towards Rainbow that there's real pain behind that. It wasn't just, 'I'm going to make jokes to hurt you.' It's, 'Hurt people, hurt people.' We wanted to explore that as well."

Photo Credit: Kenny Smith Photo Credit: Kenny Smith

Though many of Black-ish’s episodes deal with how the Johnson react to things that happen to them in the world outside of their home, "Black Like Us" looks at colorism within the family itself and how each of the Johnsons who come in various shades have been affected by it. "That was actually one of the things that made the episode so difficult to tackle,” Saji revealed. "I think the instinct is to think about it outside of the world. Courtney Lilly, one of our writers, actually brought up that it's just so much more poignant if it can happen within a family. That became the challenge of creating a realistic portrayal of these issues within the family because ultimately, we've spent five seasons getting to know these characters. These are the people that we want to spend our time with. As prevalent as it is outside the community, I think it becomes easier to communicate through the characters that we all know and love."

Though Martin's Diane has been endearing since season one when the precocious twin showed us just how brilliant and witty she could be, now on the cusp of their teen years, Black-ish has been able to put both Diane and Jack (Miles Brown) at the center of a lot more of their episodes. "Black Like Us” is only the beginning. "This year's been especially interesting because Jack and Diane have entered middle school, which is an open door," Smith stated. "Now we can do slightly more mature stories with them now that they're teenagers and sliding into young teens and into young adults."

When tackling tough topics, Black-ish has always provided some historical context and background to the themes they are discussing. "Black Like Us" is no different. The episode gives a quick overview of colorism in the antebellum South and across the globe. Though Smith wasn’t convinced that a quick history lesson needed to be included for this episode, Saji was pretty adamant that it would help put the storyline in perspective for everyone.

Photo Credit: Peter Saji Photo Credit: Peter Saji

"I believe our audience is somewhere in the neighborhood of 29% Black," Saji explained. "So to that end, colorism is a very nuanced kind of prejudice. In general, I think what we've had success with is the history lessons that gives people who aren't in the community an opportunity to catch up. It felt like because this one is so complicated, it could benefit from a history lesson and the people in the community could also benefit from a history lesson, because I think we naturally get defensive when we start talking about colorism. One of the things, I think, that that history did was it showed that color is just as prevalent in other communities. Suddenly it's like, "Okay. It's not just us anymore.'"

Saji and Smith hope that "Black Like Us" sparks a dialogue. “I think we have to just be honest about the fact that with something that is this emotionally charged, there's no right or wrong way to react to the material," Saji emphasized. "We did an amazing job, and we feel like we've come up with a fair portrayal of this issue. Hopefully, it creates opportunities to have positive conversations about a topic that we don't speak on that often."

"We have 21 minutes on something that's been affecting cultures and generations around the world from the beginning of time,” Smith said. “I think that was the hardest part, what issues could we tackle, because there was so many more that we left on the table that we couldn't touch on. We knew that going into it, everyone's not going to be happy. Some people were like, ‘You didn't say this,’ or, 'You didn't go deep enough into this.' All we can hope for is that a conversation begins."

"Black Like Us" airs Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2019 at 9 p.m.

Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide 

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