May 24, 2022

Kenya Barris, Courtney Lilly on the Ending – The Young Gazzate


[This story contains spoilers for the series finale of ABC’s Black-ish.]

The Johnson family is moving out and moving on.

After eight seasons on ABC, Black-ish said goodbye Tuesday with an episode that moved the show’s family into new phases of their lives: Dre (Anthony Anderson) and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) decide to sell their Sherman Oaks home and move to a majority Black neighborhood — and a stunning house in L.A.’s View Park. Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) are about to hit the road to see America in an RV, and twins Diane (Marsai Martin) and Jack (Miles Brown) are looking ahead to college.

While leaving is bittersweet, the Johnsons also hold a jazz funeral for their home that turns into a joyful celebration as they head out of the neighborhood.

“We wanted to say, hey, there is a way to challenge some of the premises that we have started on this show,” showrunner Courtney Lilly told The Young Gazzate. “[Things] like they have to live in this neighborhood because of schools or they have to live in this neighborhood because of this —  to really challenge those premises and see if we could alleviate one of his anxieties that was specific to [Dre’s] character, not to all Black people or America or whatever is going on, but for this character that we have spent seven seasons with at that point. How do we give them a little bit of something, and especially as he is getting ready to raise his last kid?

“I think it was Laura [Gutin, a writer and exec producer] who kind of threw in the idea about the homegoing, and once you do that, you’re like, yeah, we’re going into to the jazz funeral. And then we have something that feels like it’s fun.”

The feelings shown on screen reflected those of the people who made the show (and, in fact, the extras in the second line behind the Johnson family in the funeral scene are Black-ish crew members). ” I think there’s a hundred more episodes I’d love to do but every book comes to an end,” series creator Kenya Barris told THR. “And I think that this is the right time to do this, and we were so happy that we got to think about it. A lot of shows do not.”

In separate interviews, Barris and Lilly discussed how the final season of Black-ish came together, the show’s legacy and the future of the -ish franchise at Disney.

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Marsai Martin, Marcus Scribner and Miles Brown in ‘Black-ish’
Richard Cartwright/ABC

Was the finale that aired pretty close to what you initially discussed in the writers room?

LILLY Absolutely. We started talking about the direction in even season seven — because we didn’t know if that was going to be the last season — about what we wanted to do with the Johnson family.

And I think for Dre, the character, what was baked into the pilot was this idea that there’s a lot of anxiety that he felt by having to represent all of Black America in his behavior, in his workplace and even in his home just because of his neighborhood.

It felt like something we knew we were driving toward. But then to make that feel like something that that could still be a celebration, and still be fun — what’s that story? So we kind of arced that out for the whole season. We knew we were getting to that. And then you’re sitting there and you’re like, well visually how do you make it interesting, dramatic or cinematic to move into a new neighborhood?

Did knowing this was the final season change the writing process any?

LILLY It was totally different for us, because Black-ish was never a very serialized show. Things would happen, like in season two we found out that Bow was pregnant at the end of the season. So season three is the pregnancy season. Season four is the newborn season. There are things that are lined up so that it gave us some sort of arc, but it was never really what we were going for.

So we really did try to strip back some of the things that were the premises of the show at least in the pilot, the conceit, so that Anthony and the character could make a new choice. To do that we knew we had to have certain goals, mile markers, to make sure that worked.

Kenya, you haven’t been the day to day showrunner for a while, but did you get more involved as the show drew to a close?

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Kenya Barris
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

BARRIS I left [before] season five. I think season five I really went and just did what I had to do. Season six, I did what I had to do. I think season seven and eight, I dipped in more. The end of this year, I definitely dipped in the most that I dipped in, more than I have ever had. It was hard because we were working through the pandemic and it wasn’t a true room. And that for me is, that’s death to comedy. But we had a lot of conversations about the finale and the lead up to the finale.

This season still dealt with some of the larger issues Black-ish has always taken on, but it also felt very personal to what Dre and Bow were going through. How did you strike that balance?

BARRIS We tried to go back to the core roots of what made the show work and I think in some aspects we did. Courtney did a really great job of that.

LILLY In doing the show, at least in the last three seasons in which I ran it, there wasn’t a thing that we left on the table. There wasn’t anything where we’re like, “I really wish we had been able to do that.” Because we were able to cover everything. We were able to cover everything very much with the consciousness of what we were going for.

And while we definitely concentrated on Dre’s journey to get him to this endpoint, we [also] concentrated on celebrating the family and joy in general. We wanted it to be a fun season.

Was Stevie Wonder’s “As” always the song choice to play over the final scene of the Johnson family?

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Courtney Lilly
Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

LILLY We had been thinking a lot about this. And knowing that you have an eighth and final season gives you the ability to [think ahead]. As soon as we knew we got it, we could start thinking about what it looks like and start to envision what we want.

One of the things I love about what HBO has done so much is you’d watch an episode — I’m just going to name a show — you watch an episode of Girls or whatever. And no matter what happens, they cut to black and do that music cue. If that song is dope you get a feeling out of it.So I knew that’s kind of what we wanted to do. That is the great thing about film and television, it’s auditory and it’s visual. So it was really important what the song was going to be, and we had months and months and months to think about it.

And it’s one of Stevie Wonder’s best songs, which is saying a lot because he is a miracle songwriter and musician. And there was just a moment where I heard it and I was just like, oh, this has got to be it. Mercifully they gave us permission to use it. And it’s one of those things that just felt right as soon as we did it.

Black-ish is over, but Grown-ish was recently renewed for a fifth season on Freeform with some changes to the cast, including Marcus Scribner coming over from Black-ish, and with Courtney and Zakiyyah Alexander taking over as showrunners. Do you think that can maybe help extend its life?

LILLY I’m excited to be doing it. I’ve been in this world of Black-ish, so I’m learning as much as anything else. I’m excited to keep working with Marcus. He is fantastic. I’m excited about the new cast members we’re bringing on because. When Grown-ish started a few years ago, obviously it was a story about what life was like for college kids. And I think even the last four years, again because of the pandemic, the view of why you go to college, what people get out of the college experience has changed dramatically. So we have got a whole fresh new set of stories to be able to tell.

BARRIS We will see. I think that there are some really interesting things happening on that show. I think that every show grows, and I think television or movies or books are like babies. Like you say my son is going to be the next Michael Jordan and he ends up being the greatest pianist, you know what I’m saying? You don’t know, you kind of have to let the baby grow up to be what it’s going to be.

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Laurence Fishburne and Jenifer Lewis in ‘Black-ish.’
Richard Cartwright/ABC

And I’ve heard that Old-ish, which would follow Pops and Ruby’s story, might still be in play at Hulu?

BARRIS You’re hearing what I’m hearing. [laughs] You’re hearing the same things I’m hearing.

Kenya, before this season began you said Black-ish helped you get comfortable with the idea of having a story go a different way than you thought. How did this show go differently?

BARRIS I just think in general what I learned as a writer was something I used to hear from my grandmother a lot: Be willing to exit a conversation differently than you enter it. You want the showrunner to know what they want, right? As a writer on a show, you’re like, please know what you want. At the same time, sometimes someone says something brilliant in the room because you have brilliant people in the room, that’s why you hire them. Or at the same time, society has taken a different turn and the conversation, especially if you’re doing a show that’s about something, the conversation has sort of turned. And I think that that was one of the things that I learned on that show is to really use the room to its best advantage.

And what I really found out is that there is no true — Black-ish never said this is THE point of view, it said this is A point of view, and we have a lot of different people who had a lot of different ways that they thought that all added to what that show was going to be, what each episode was going to be about.

What do you think the show’s legacy will be? How would you want it to be remembered?

LILLY It’s interesting because I’m not a great legacy person. And to be honest too, as a steward of the show — it’s Kenya’s show. And he has guided this and brought so much to it and it’s the right time for it. I think a lot of what we’ll see is probably in the next 10 or 15 years, there will be comedy writers who grew up watching this show in the same way I grew up watching A Different World or Living Single or In Living Color or Seinfeld. As important as this show has been and as often as it’s talked about, none of it would have happened if it wasn’t incredibly funny. This is a very, very funny show. And we worked very hard to make it funny.

BARRIS I don’t want to say anything that sounds too pat, but I do think the legacy of it is hopefully it opened up conversations and made the world a little bit closer.

Interviews edited and condensed.