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'We Built This': 'Black-ish' Makes A Piercing, Vital Juneteenth Musical

Marsai Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Yara Shahidi, Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, and Laurence Fishburne perform in the fourth-season premiere of ABC's <em>Black-ish</em>.
Kelsey McNeal
Marsai Martin, Jenifer Lewis, Yara Shahidi, Tracee Ellis Ross, Anthony Anderson, Marcus Scribner, Miles Brown, and Laurence Fishburne perform in the fourth-season premiere of ABC's Black-ish.

The Hamilton-inflected logo of the cast of Black-ish silhouetted against a gold background announced, before the premiere of the fourth season even hit its first commercial break, that this was going to be an unusual episode.

The story began with Dre (Anthony Anderson) and the rest of the family drearily enduring Diane and Jack's school play celebrating Columbus Day. Dre confronted the teacher about why a slave trader was being celebrated at school, and his father (Laurence Fishburne) chimed in that they could use a celebration of a holiday for black people. "What about Tupac's birthday?" he demanded. "What about Magic Johnson's Still Alive Day? What about Juneteenth?" Dre leaned over and muttered, "Maybe you should have led with that last one."

Part of what made the episode so bracing was this combination of serious material — the way holidays announce whose history is important — and biting jokes that would have no place in your ordinary Let's Learn A Lesson episode of TV. All that, plus the musical presence of artists like The Roots, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and particularly Aloe Blacc, who, in the story, Dre recruited to help him explain and promote Juneteenth.

In truth, even Dre's family wasn't in the habit of celebrating Juneteenth, though, and knowledge of its origins was necessary to get anything else about the episode. In a brilliant send-up of ABC's own old Schoolhouse Rock cartoon "I'm Just A Bill," a song by The Roots called "I Am A Slave" gave a primer on slavery and emancipation. ("I am a slave, yes I'm only a slave; they'll place my body in an unmarked grave.") The cartoon, even with its jaunty tune, underscored the brutality of slavery and the way functional emancipation was delayed until June 19, 1865 — thus the Juneteenth holiday — after the end of the war, even though the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect two years earlier.

But the strongest material in the episode came in two major musical numbers performed by the cast, all playing enslaved people who were versions of their characters within the family, on a stage that seemed to exist in Dre's mind. The first, "We Built This," explained Dre's comment to his work colleagues, "You do know why America is so rich, right? Because we built this land for free."

It's not uncommon at all for television to attempt to speak against racism. But it is uncommon for a broadcast comedy to so bluntly describe the way that slavery created wealth that still exists. "We raised their children," Jenifer Lewis sang. "Then raised their buildings," Anderson continued. The lyrics spoke of the many things built in whole or in part by enslaved people: "Railroads, Wall Street, the White House and universities." And then: "UVA? We built that. Chapel Hill? We built that. Pyramids? No, sorry, our Hebrew brothers get credit for that." There, again, a joke out of nowhere that somehow adds weight to the rest.

After we returned to Dre's workplace, where a colleague suggested he sort of get over it now that slavery has been over for so long, he took us back to that stage, where we saw the enslaved people back in 1865 celebrate the freedom they anticipated they were about to get, and all the things it would mean. It would mean voting, not having to show papers. And in perhaps the most piercing moment of the entire episode, the young black man played by Junior (Marcus Scribner), says, "I can finally whistle at a white woman." Continuing from there, the song became an extraordinary indictment of all the things that emancipation did not mean — all the things that this version of freedom should have meant and didn't. And at the end, the man played by Dre opened his shirt to reveal a T-shirt underneath that said, "I AM MY ANCESTORS' WILDEST DREAMS." It's a real and popular shirt that's been worn by, among others, filmmaker Ava DuVernay.

It's one of the weaknesses of narrative television that it often engages race as either an issue between individuals — the person who meets the racist co-worker, for example — or a kind of an abstract force, like gravity, that just happens and must be handled, like weather. It's rare to see this kind of systemic examination of slavery as a thread that stretches from the past to the present.

The show packed all this into the space of a half-hour of TV. It was also entertaining, brilliantly executed, and tonally balanced. Just about every joke landed, just about every moment on screen was well used. The cast — Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Lewis, Fishburne, Scribner, Yara Shahidi, Miles Brown, Marsai Martin and others — deserves enormous praise, as do showrunner Kenya Barris, the musicians who worked on it, and the entire production. The episode is an impeccable and unforgettable piece of work.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.