“America makes no claim to the banal. America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard. This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
In 2018, ABC shelved an episode of black-ish called “Please, Baby, Please.” Ultimately, this (directly, or indirectly depending on who you ask) led to creator Kenya Barris’ departure from black-ish to the sunnier shores of creative freedom at Netflix, behind the wheel of a Brinks truck carrying a reported nine figures. There were whispers that the episode was too spicy for executives on account of subject matter revolving around Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests during NFL games. That simultaneously loaded but diplomatic term “creative differences”was thrown around. Then eventually, Barris broke his silence and revealed the point of contention—its critical nature of Donald Trump.
Many black-ish fans thought we’d never know just how blistering of a critique Barris had in the chamber for the man we so shamefully have as the president of the United States. But, earlier this week, Hulu and Walt Disney finally came to an agreement with Barris—it’s time for the people to see the episode, “controversial” subject matter and all. It’s apropos to what’s been going down in the streets this long hot summer.
“Please, Baby, Please” begins with thunders. There’s the thunder—the complete attention and reverence commanded—from Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” as the episode’s opening number. There’s the loud color correction and palette—the 22 minutes are saturated in blues and grays. And then there’s the thunderstorm taking place outside. Devante, Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Dre’s (Anthony Anderson) one-year-old baby boy is restless, as infant babies are wont to be, especially during thunderstorms. Dre ends up telling Devante a bedtime story to soothe him through the night. He begins with Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee’s children’s book, the inspiration for the episode’s title, complete with a Spike Lee voiceover cameo). Then Dre opts for crafting his own little fairy tale, about The Shady King (read: Donald Trump) and Prince Barry (Barack Obama)—the show’s tradition of news footage cutaways leaves no cover of subtext of just who Dre’s talking about. He later traverses through his house, discussing the State of the Union with Pops (Laurence Fishburne) and his other children, Junior, Jack, and Diane. We see grainy black and white footage of the Klan next to Charlottesville. The activism of Arthur Ashe, Muhammed Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos is invoked. Both sides debate on Colin Kaepernick, and discuss fears of global warming. What ensues from these scenes is…not as acerbic as anticipated, but it’s a lot to unpack.
“Please, Baby, Please” isn’t a model for a perfect television episode like some of black-ish’s prior marquee message episodes like “Hope,” or “Juneteenth.” And Barris arguably skewered Trump more harshly in Season 3's post-2016 election episode “Lemons.” Also, “Please, Baby, Please” isn’t particularly funny. Quite frankly, the hardest I laughed during the episode was when I realized Conner O’Malley made an inadvertent cameo as a Trump supporter in a supercut or the bit where the twins matter-of-factly tell their father he has about five years to live because he’s so unhealthy. “Please, Baby, Please” is unlike any black-ish episode before it and only really similar to “Blue Valentine,” (which also has some extremely harsh Medicine For Melancholy-esque color correction) in that it isn’t deeply concerned with using humor as its main device, but more concerned with staking its ground in emotional cues. The episode’s unmistakably anti-Trump stance—while ABC was in the throes of a merger—is what put Barris and network brass at odds. They weren’t fully invested in diving this deeply into partisanship. Maybe they wanted to pacify some of Trump’s most vile supporters who sprang about like hemlock from concrete, like the former star of The Conners née Roseanne. Maybe all that is what pissed Kenya Barris off so much too.
Barris and the black-ish squad put their blood, sweat, and tears into the show. In the first four seasons, they put together some of the most compelling, smart and funny episodes in the long history of network family sitcoms, complete with Emmy nominations (no wins; criminal), a Golden Globe trophy (shout out Tracee Ellis Ross) and a cabinet full of NAACP Image Awards (ain’t nothin’ but a thang). I think Barris’ intention here was an intuitive and cathartic reaction to Donald Trump and his malevolence, out of sadness and fear, with his children’s safety and liberty chiefly in mind. There are people out there who put on a brave and haughty face and relay a falsehood that everything happening around us is just the quotidian delights of America. Some of us, and rest assured Kenya Barris, know better.
Though Spike and Tonya Lewis Lee’s book is the direct inspiration for the episode, “Please, Baby, Please” more readily reminds me a little of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ spiritual treatise on America structured as a letter to his teenage son, Between the World and Me. As if it’s an adaptation through Barris and Anthony Anderson’s eyes, through the lens of black-ish. But, the bedtime story he tells Devante more thoroughly reminds me of Coates’ essay in The Atlantic, “The First White President,” in which Coates makes the case that the grounds of a Donald Trump presidency is a repudiation of Barack Obama, a loathsome rejection America has had to being governed by a Black man for eight years. In it, Coates states: “Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies”. He ends the essay with a helluva bar: “The first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president—and he is made more dangerous still by the fact that those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.”
And like Dre, Coates has hope for brighter days in our future.
Toward the end of the aforementioned Season 3 episode, “Lemons,” Dre gives a powerful and impassioned speech to his coworkers (one of my favorite gags in black-ish is that they do so little actual work and they really don’t work in this episode) about his love for America as a Black man despite the plunder the red, white and blue has rained down on Black people since 1619. It’s a peculiar relationship. I’m inclined to say “Please, Baby, Please” isn’t a watershed, tentpole episode, that Disney has kind of Streisand Effected it into becoming. But what it is, is a soulful addition to the canon. Black-ish feels a little more whole because of it.
“Please, Baby, Please,” was intended as a response to Trump’s first year in office, however, you can’t help but to view it through the lens of his first term as a whole. You can’t help but view it through the lens of the aftermath of COVID-19 and George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other names added to the list this summer alone. May they Rest In Power. And what we’re seeing out there in the streets this summer, everybody coming together, fighting the righteous fight for justice, you can’t help but be hopeful that a change gone come. The whole summer’s been a young Larry Fishburne running through the quad as (Spike's father) Bill Lee’s score swells like thunder, hollering “WAAAKKKKKKEEEE UPPPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”