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The lost ‘Black-ish’ episode, now on Hulu, never should have been lost

Everything in the controversial episode from 2017’s fourth season of ‘Black-ish’ seems tame by 2020 standards.

The lost ‘Black-ish’ episode, now on Hulu, never should have been lost
[Photo: Gilles Mingasson/ABC]

It was the thinking person’s Snyder Cut, if not his or her Day the Clown Cried.

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The unreleased 2017 Black-ish episode, “Please, Baby, Please” offered more than a grimmer Justice League, or a sunnier Holocaust. It promised a funny Black creator taking on the president, with the imprimatur of primetime network TV behind him—a proposition made all the more tantalizing by its eventual censorship at the behest of said network. What exactly made it too hot for TV? Did Kenya Barris snap and go so hard on Donald Trump that it was simply unsuitable for family audiences? It hurt not to know.

Now that Hulu has made the controversial episode available to stream, though, the truth is out there. And it has brought more questions than answers.

“Please, Baby, Please” was originally set to air on February 27, 2018, just over a year after Trump’s inauguration, inspired by everything that had happened in between. Since time has moved strangely over the past four years, and even more strangely during quarantine, here’s your reminder of what that first year entailed: the travel ban, the push to repeal Obamacare, the withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, Charlottesville, and “Get that son of a bitch off the field.” A bunch of other stuff happened, too, but those are the biggies.

By the time fall rolled around, Barris felt the need to say something beyond the usual sociopolitical messages he took care to weave into each episode of Black-ish.

Initially, the network was on board. According to an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, ABC worked with Barris every step of the way to make “Please, Baby, Please” something special. They gave the creator a heftier-than-normal budget so he could afford a Spike Lee voice-over and the rights to songs such as Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and the Sam Cooke classic “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which Barris personally asked Cooke’s goddaughter for permission to use. The episode was said to be framed as a bedtime story Barris surrogate character Dre (Anthony Anderson) reads to his infant son Devante, and to deploy snazzy animation in bringing the tale of “the Shady King” to life.

For the last few years, that’s about all anyone knew.

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ABC, which is owned by Disney, pulled the episode mere days before it was set to air, irrevocably harming the network’s business relationship with Barris. He defected to Netflix in the fall of 2018, with a $100 million deal, citing the shelved episode as the final straw.

Now that I’ve seen “Please, Baby, Please,” it’s obvious why the creator departed. The lost episode is an elegant depiction of a successful suburban Black family’s concerns in late 2017, and it’s about as polite and reasonable a case against Trump as possible. By 2020 standards, it comes across as utterly tame. If this wasn’t sufficiently defanged and both-sidesy enough for ABC, perhaps nothing would be.

The episode does indeed follow the storybook convention attributed to it when it was still just a lost artifact. Dre’s bedtime story for baby Devante starts by mentioning that, just like Dave Chappelle, he started off giving “the Shady King” a chance, which was difficult because of “internet memes.” Now, there’s a lot more Dre could have said to explain why it was difficult to give the Shady King a chance—perhaps that the Shady King had recently dismissed credible allegations of sexual assault by claiming an accuser wasn’t, at present, attractive enough to assault—but Dre is wisely confined to the G-rated tone of a children’s book here. When Dre is reading, the story alternates between dazzling animation and archival footage of Trump speeches and gloating MAGA-hatted fans on the march.

Over the course of the episode, Dre interacts with each member of his family as all but Pops, the granddad played by Laurence Fishburne, come to sleep in bed with Dre and Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross.) Although much of the episode is confined to unpleasant facts about the president, the section where Dre chats with Pops is confined to conjecture. It’s likely the part that made the suits at ABC most nervous.

The pair compare and contrast the KKK and the alt-right, with Dre making the following summary of the latter: “With politics the way they are now, they found a sales pitch that’s resonating with people who aren’t your average card-carrying klansmen: white pride.” Pops has a hard time squaring how the pride of a people can be earned without overcoming struggle and adversity. Dre has a theory about how this is possible. “After eight years with a Black man as president,” he says, “a lot of white people do feel like they’ve overcome adversity.”

Although it’s unclear exactly why ABC shelved the episode, beyond general fears of ruffling Trumpian feathers, my guess would be that it’s this scene. Although it’s clear that Donald Trump stoked racist resentment by championing the Birther movement, something ABC itself has covered extensively, pointing out in primetime why that message resonated with white voters probably seemed like too strong a statement. Especially for the network that was then in the process of developing a reboot of Roseanne as a transparent win to court Trump voters.

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“Executives at ABC, more than any other network, have been forthright about their desire for more red-state programming since Trump’s win,” The Hollywood Reporter states in its interview with Barris following his Netflix deal announcement. “And with Barris’ latest episode, they feared they’d be alienating the very population they’d tried so hard to court. That Disney brass wouldn’t want to poke Trump himself just as the company was seeking Justice Department approval of its acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox is widely believed to have been a factor as well.”

It’s not surprising such a network would have feared that suggesting Donald Trump appeals to racists might alienate viewers. It’s equally unsurprising how much has happened in the intervening years to make this decision look pathetic.

Studies have since confirmed that race played a huge motivating factor in the 2016 election. Plus, “Please, Baby, Please” was set in an era just before “shithole countries,” before Trump said that the biggest regret of his presidency was briefly distancing himself from his initial “very fine people” remarks following Charlottesville, and before Trump praised armed quarantine protesters while denouncing Black Lives Matter.

This morning, I woke up and saw that Donald Trump had sounded off on “a nastiness about the NBA” while praising the predominantly white NHL. In this climate, “Please, Baby, Please” looks downright quaint.

Shame on the Shady Kings at ABC for failing to see which way the wind was blowing three years ago.

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