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black-ish's Must-See Prince Tribute Is black-ish at Its Best

Why it's as important as it is silly fun

Malcolm Venable

On Tuesday, black-ish celebrated its must-see 100th episode with a celebration of Prince's legendary music. The milestone episode, naturally titled "Purple Rain," was black-ish at its best: fun, special and poignant. It reminded everyone how well the ABC comedy can swing from serious to silly and make salient points at every stop in between.

"We could have done more dramatic things, had a bigger plot development for the family, but we'd just done that in the season premiere with Junior announcing he was taking a gap year," executive producer Jonathan Groff tells TV Guide, noting that the episode cost a pretty penny, somewhere "shockingly close" to $1 million.

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Anthony Anderson, black-ish

Anthony Anderson, black-ish

Kelsey McNeal, ABC

The action starts with Andre (Anthony Anderson), Bo (Tracee Ellis Ross), Junior (Marcus Scribner) and those lovably gruff Johnson grandparents in the kitchen rocking out to "Let's Go Crazy." But when Jack (Miles Brown) and Diane (Marsai Martin) ask something along the lines of Who's that lady you're listening to? Dre calls another of his emergency family meetings.

Like every parent should be, Dre is appalled and disappointed his kids don't know Prince, the iconic musician who died in 2016. This sets up what becomes a lighthearted episode about how Prince's music has impacted and shaped everybody's life. (And yes, Prince impacting one's life is a real thing; for this writer it was being a baby gay at a now-shuttered bar for black and Latino men on New York's Christopher Street in the year 2000 when an extended version of "I Wanna Be Your Lover" came on, and its thrilling mix of sensual, sexual, feminine and naughty energy washed over me in a way I still remember to this day.)

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As many black-ish stories do, this one came from a personal story -- creator Kenya Barris' child was once also clueless about Prince -- but it also comes with the happy endorsement of the Prince estate, which had been in talks with black-ish's musical supervisor Gabe Hilfer.

As the episode continues, everyone performs a different Prince song and shares how, as Dre puts it, "the entire black community loved a black man who wore heels and assless pants." Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) explains how Prince defied standards of masculinity and Zoey (Yara Shahidi) talks about how Prince incorporated social messages in his music. Anderson is totally committed -- and totally absurd -- performing "Kiss," rocking a tube top that lets his hairy belly hang free, while the always delightfully goofy Tracee Ellis Ross nails Prince's early '90s look in "Erotic City."

Marsai Martin, black-ish

Marsai Martin, black-ish

Kelsey McNeal, ABC

"Purple Rain" is funny, but it's important too. black-ish has evolved into an unpredictable, if overtly activist, sitcom, a consequence of the times. Since the episode "Lemons," which took on the 2016 election and what it meant for African-Americans head-on, black-ish has been unflinching in its instinct to run toward difficult subjects. It has done this so enthusiastically, in fact, that ABC still won't show its episode about football players kneeling. This season's "Don't You Be My Neighbor" addressed the frustration and actual danger African-Americans experience when someone calls the police on them for a petty grievance, or for nothing at all, but, this being a show on a broadcast network and being a comedy, it has to retain some levity and avoid lecturing its cheerleaders. black-ish won't -- and shouldn't -- cower from covering tough topics; socio-political statements are in its DNA not only because Barris (who's gone on to Netflix but remains the voice of the show) is a fan of Norman Lear but also because toggling between tough experiences and unbridled fun is what it's like to be black. "Purple Rain," reminds viewers that black-ish is still very much a comedy, and how important music -- and Prince specifically -- is to black culture.

As much fun as the episode's performances are, "Purple Rain" also imparts some very serious truths about heritage and culture. When Jack and Diane don't know Prince, it's a needle scratch moment that Groff says prompts their parents to think they haven't done right by their children in not telling them how seminal this guy is to culture. "Dre and Bo take it as a challenge -- they feel they failed," he says.

That's not entirely fiction. To grow up black and not have at least some fleeting familiarity with trailblazers like Mahaila Jackson, James Brown and Prince is, to older generations, the cardinal sin of not knowing where you come from. African-Americans were long denied opportunities to participate in government, business, media and so on, so famous musicians, Prince among them, were a source of pride, a reflection of black creativity and innovation and success. They, in turn, used their influence and money to speak up for justice, elevating them to heroic status. Prince may be best known for sex-drenched records and otherworldly guitar riffs, but he spoke out against racism and prejudice too. In his final years, he had taken to wearing a giant Afro, referencing Black Lives Matter and donating money to causes; in 2015, after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody sparked protests in Baltimore, Prince released a song named after the city, the chorus of which is, "If there ain't no justice, then there ain't no peace."

Prince's music crossed all kinds of boundaries and appealed to everybody, but he was also very proudly black. Those aren't mutually exclusive, which is what black-ish has been saying about itself from Day One: Stories can wade into the specifics of black life and have mass appeal. With "Purple Rain," black-ish reminded us yet again that though we all have differences, we're all gathered here together to get through this thing called life, and it can be really damn fun too.

black-ish airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.