Black-ish is a comedy, but as with any smart comedy, it is faced with tackling serious topics—topics that cannot and shall not be ignored.
Now, with a timely episode titled, “Black History Month,” the hit ABC show tackles what many black folks have had to encounter in the education system: compacting black history facts within one month—the shortest month—and having those facts regurgitated in the same diluted fashion.
As kids, every Black History Month, many of us would learn about the same folks in school: Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King. Malcolm X. Harriet Tubman. George Washington Carver. Rinse. Repeat. Then, “Welp, that’s enough blackness ‘til next year!”
Via a press release from ABC:
Dre (Anthony Anderson) is upset after he learns that Jack and Diane are getting the same surface-level education about Black History Month that he got when he was growing up. After taking it up with the twins’ teacher, he is asked to present at the assembly and wants to bring Black history to life.
This episode marks the second time Tracee Ellis Ross has directed an episode of Black-ish. The actress behind Rainbow “Bow” Johnson first sat in the director’s chair during her TV directorial debut on Girlfriends. Speaking with The Root via phone, Ross talked about balancing the duties of actor and director and reconciling the fact that she cannot be “everything” all at once.
“I act from my gut and my heart,” Ross mused. “I direct from my mind and my eyes; these are two different brains. Any director will tell you, it is a nonstop constant experience. There is no moment for your brain to stop working, because [you’re facing] hundreds and hundreds of questions. They say being a director is like answering questions all day long. So, this switching back and forth, I find really challenging because I really do use a completely different part of my intelligence as an actor versus director.”
Ross says that her gender has actually been helpful in her directorial endeavors.
“It is quite a task, and I will be very honest with you—I feel like women are purposely suited in how we’ve been culturally groomed and how we actually operate authentically. I’m making a very serious typical blanket statement because I’m not saying all women are groomed this way, but culturally and systemically, we’re groomed to handle multiple things at once. And be all things to all people, all the time, and still take care of ourselves. And that is the job of a director.”
“I also have a very strong point of view,” she continued. “I’m not a wishy-washy person, I’m very specific, I know exactly what I like and exactly what I want. The challenge as a newer director is figuring out how to communicate that without always knowing all of the language and jargon that go along with being a director. But, if you have a great DP [Director of Photography] or what I learned from Eva Longoria—she’s like, ‘If you don’t have the name of the shot or the kind of shot you want, just make the sound and do it with your hands.’ And it works!”
After opening up to her about the overwhelming marathon known as Oscar Week, Ross spoke truth to power to me and shared that she has made peace with the fact that she can’t be “everything to everyone.” And knowing that it’s okay to say she doesn’t know because she is “enough” as she is.
“I don’t have to hold up some weird ego front of thinking I know things that I don’t,” she said.
Speaking of being authentic in things you may not know, since this episode delves into a phenomenon quite common in the black community, I asked Ross: Did she also came across the vast array of historical black figures in adulthood that she’d been denied in her childhood education?
Ross touched on the first time she saw Whoopi Goldberg’s Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, Kimberlé Crenshaw’s contribution to our lexicon with the term “intersectionality,” Studio Museum of Harlem director Thelma Golden, and Root 100 honoree Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement.
“[She’s] a perfect example of an angel that’s no longer hidden,” said Ross about Burke, whom she now considers a friend.
Naturally, with an episode centering the blackest month of the year, I had to ask Ross to give us the scoop on the blackest moment she experienced on set while helming this episode.
After exploding in a satisfyingly hearty guffaw, Ross cited a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment scene of (alcohol) mixology with Laurence Fishburne (who portrays “Pops”) after Dre annoys him.
“I got the honor of putting that camera [towards] his back and letting him [make a drink] two or three times. I mean it was hi-larious, yes, but also we all know that man—we all have a ‘Pops’ in our lives. The way he was twisting the tops off those bottles and propping up his elbows, I was like, ‘You’re like the Patti LaBelle of making a drink!’”
Yeah, that moment was black as hell, even in its subtlety.
Overall, Ross hopes the episode conveys the total richness of black folks, without having to pick or choose which one is necessarily more worthy to be honored in the month of February.
“This is not about one person or another, but it is about the vastness of who we are and of our experiences, our influence and our actions,” she noted.
Plus, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer makes a fun appearance in ABC’s version of The More You Know. “She was so game to get in there. She was just adorable. Fantastic!” exclaimed Ross, before listing a few directions she gave to Spencer.
“I was like, ‘You’re talking to a locker room full of teenage boys [or] a group of college liberal college students who were out protesting, [or] a group of pocketbook-holding socialites at a lunch, [or at an] old folks home [filled with a] whole bunch of people who have been through it all, know it all, and heard it all before!’ And she’d change the way she was doing it,” Ross recalled. “It was so much fun!”
The “Black History Month” episode of Black-ish airs Tuesday, Feb. 26 at 9:oo p.m. ET / 8:00 p.m. CT.