"Black-ish" star speaks on "Black Panther," representation in Hollywood

Actor Marcus Scribner addresses the changing landscape of Hollywood and black creatives telling their own stories

Published February 24, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Marcus Scribner and Marsai Martin in "Black-ish" (ABC/Byron Cohen)
Marcus Scribner and Marsai Martin in "Black-ish" (ABC/Byron Cohen)

"Black Panther" smashed the box offices its opening weekend, shattering both records and misconceptions. The film has been celebrated for its compelling storytelling, complex and interesting male and female characters, pan-Africanism and its undeniable blackness in front of and behind the camera. Dialogue in the film, like Princess Shuri asking King T'Challa "WHAT ARE THOSE?!," a reference to the viral phrase birthed from a black creative on the internet, was clearly intentional and thoughtful. This authenticity in "Black Panther" — which was not made palatable for white audiences nor muddled with explanatory commas — makes a powerful statement about what it means to speak to black audiences directly in a mainstream space. It is something ABC’s "Black-ish" has been doing consistently since 2014.

The sitcom about an upper-middle-class black family navigating culture and identity in a predominantly white neighborhood (and world) also confronts institutional racism and its many tentacles. The show is layered, witty, whimsical and profound in its depiction of one black family in America. Unsurprisingly, "Black-ish" has racked up awards. And the show returns to ABC Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. from its winter hiatus.

The acclaim of "Black-ish," "Black Panther," and other predominantly black shows and movies of the past few years, like Issa Rae’s "Insecure," Donald Glover’s "Atlanta," Malcolm D. Lee’s "Girls Trip" and Jordan Peele’s "Get Out," point to a current moment where black stories are not just being told, but are being told thoughtfully and accurately, which is inseparable from the fact that they are being told by black people themselves. Each aforementioned show or film offers an immensely different perspective into the black experience, which counters the monolithic portrait that has too often plagued Hollywood’s representation of blackness. Now, though, it seems that many voices and stories are being encouraged and embraced.

Ahead of "Black-ish’s" return, the show’s oldest son, Andre Johnson Jr., affectionately known as "Junior" by his family, and whose real name is Marcus Scribner, 18, spoke to Salon about the show’s significance, how the sitcom changed after Donald Trump became president and his belief that environmentalism is a cause everyone should be active in.

How’s the filming going?

The filming’s going great right now. We just got back from hiatus this week. Tracee [who plays mother Rainbow Johnson] is directing. So it’s been pretty fun getting to see her on that side of the camera. These next few episodes we have coming up are actually really deep episodes, and I think they’re extremely important and so I’m excited to be filming them, but at the same time, it’s a step away from what we usually do on 'Black-ish.' 

Can you tell any more about what makes them deep or what makes them challenging?

I don’t think we’ve announced anything yet on these episodes. But I’ll say it’s something that people usually don’t tackle on sitcoms, which I know our show is known for. It’s something unique, like a family situation. So it should be some pretty cool episodes coming up, or sad, kind of.

How has the show changed since Trump entered office?

We’ve had a lot more themes to talk about. There’s definitely some off-the-rocker topics that Trump has spewed out of his mouth, whether it’s talking about abuse, sexual harassment, things like that, it’s definitely added fuel to our fire, which I think is one of the only good things about Trump being elected into office. I feel like people are definitely pushing more against establishments like that. And I think our show is definitely one of them. There’s a lot of topics that need to be covered by us and I think that we’re trying to do a pretty good job at that.

The show is groundbreaking for so many reasons. Can you talk about the significance of the show?

The meaning of the show is very important. It portrays African-Americans in a different light on television than we have been portrayed recently. It’s always the drug dealer, the gangster, things like that — drama between people of color, and I feel like "Black-ish" just gives a very real look at what it is to be black in America.

What are you most proud of on the show?

Probably the vastness of the topics that we cover. We cover topics of police brutality, segregation, racial stereotyping . . . what it’s like to try to raise a family in this modern generation, and going through the struggles that any American family would have. And I think that’s what makes us so relatable and what makes people continue to watch.

We have a lot of freedom to talk to the writers about the topics each week. So I definitely think that there’s a mutual learning or just exchange of knowledge between everybody on the set. I feel like our main goal is to get information out there to everybody who watches our show; that way they can come to their own conclusions as well, that way the debate can expand and we can continue to talk about these issues.

Have you seen "Black Panther?"

I did and I loved it! It’s just such a proud, black piece of art. I thought that it was beautiful representation; the story was great, the action was hype. I loved the characters, I’m excited to see how they fit into the Marvel universe, especially with 'Infinity Wars' coming. It just got me hyped, I loved the movie.

I think just representing and getting to see somebody who has the same skin tone as you as a superhero — living this amazing life, especially in a place like Wakanda, where they have so much rich history. I thought it was amazing how they took from so many different African cultures and combined them into one mecca-city. It was an amazing piece and I think it’s definitely inspirational. I imagined myself as a youth, even now 18 years old, like looking up to these people and seeing what is possible.

Do you follow politics?

Yeah [sighs]. I don’t think anybody can be proud of that now. I feel like following politics has become a necessary evil even for people who aren’t really that interested. I’ve always been somebody who likes fantasy; I don’t like living in the real world. I feel like at this point it’s necessary to turn around and face what’s right in front of us, because it’s right at our doorstep and it’s important for people my age and even people older to try to turn around and reverse what’s occurring. It’s scary. But I have optimism and hope for the future.

How did you get into environmental activism?

We have to give back to the earth what we take from it. I feel as though humans, as an entire species, we like to reap the benefits of something and then move on and not face the consequences and I think it’s definitely catching up with us. Especially with our current presidency dismantling the EPA. I mean for God’s sakes, the man in charge of the EPA right now just literally had a lawsuit against the EPA like last year; multiple lawsuits.

He sanctioned the building of Pebble Mining Co. on a natural salmon fishery that native tribes were using that’s going to poison, I think hundreds of square miles of land. There’s just a lot of things that are going on that are disrupting the environment, especially living in a big city like Los Angeles where there’s a lot of cars, there’s a lot of traffic. I think it’s important to try to be environmentally conscious and make sure that our carbon footprint is as small as possible. I think environmentalism should be a part of everyone’s lives.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

By Rachel Leah

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