If you’ve read my column or followed my Facebook for any decent duration of time, then you know my general fandom for the sitcom Black-ish.
It’s funny. Really funny. How couldn’t it be, with Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and national treasure Jenifer Lewis working together in a series consulted on by Larry Wilmore?
But even though Black-ish makes me laugh a lot, the show hangs its hat on handling social issues. In short, it’s black even when that means dealing with the hard stuff – and being black comes with a world of hard stuff.
We’ve seen Dre, Rainbow and the Johnsons tackle police brutality, consumerism, intraracial prejudice regarding skin tone (aka colorism), politics, protest, interracial relationships, the burden of representation, survivor’s remorse, respectability politics, and other things with general aplomb and specificity.
So, imagine my disgust in seeing Chris Brown on this program the previous week.
In the episode, “Richard Youngsta,” Dre is excited about doing a campaign with a popular rap star but becomes conflicted when Bow and his mother, Ruby, tell him the ad promotes racist and sexist stereotypes.
That rap star, Richard Youngsta, walks into the office, and it’s Chris Brown.
This is the person you, a show that has made much hay about how it pays attention to social issues, decide to bring into the fold? How can a show this self-conscious and prideful on its self-awareness make this big an error?
It’s not only that Brown has a long list of abusive, criminal behavior since he assaulted then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. It’s not only that he has remained largely unrepentant about everything. That he keeps recording and touring in a vastly diminished career under which he still has the nerve to record a song built around the hook “these ho’s ain’t loyal.”
What truly turns this episode so sour is that casting Brown as the linchpin of an episode about double standards and men throwing shit on black women is just ridiculously tone-deaf.
Why Chris Brown?!? You couldn’t get a Chris Brown-adjacent recording artist instead?
Trey Songz, who has all of the objectification issues but nowhere near the abuse record, wasn’t free? Jason Derulo, who does a more primetime-safe version of Brown’s act, couldn’t come down to the set?
Shit, they didn’t call Tyga or Wiz Khalifa or 2 Chainz? Flo Rida couldn’t do it? They each have their own ish, but they ain’t Chris Brown.
Even better: Richard Youngsta is a rapper the show made up for the episode, so you didn’t even need a real recording artist to play him!
During the episode, Dre and Bow get into a great conversation about black artistic freedom and the burden of representing an entire people. The conundrum of black artists’ work under the white gaze is a big issue, and Dre sees it when his bigoted white neighbor laughs and laughs at the ad in a way he finds unsettling.
But who gives a shit, when Dre’s “art” is a commercial of Chris Brown pouring champagne on an argumentative black woman , which then transforms her into a smiling and compliant white woman?
Even the “classy” revised version of the Uvo, in which Rich Youngsta exits a luxury car to a private jet, is undercut by using Brown’s song “No Bullshit.” Y’know, the artless booty-call anthem that starts with “3 in the morning, you know I’m horny,” and demands “Don’t you be on that bullshit.”
You can’t make those points about double standards on black men, and the depictions of black men and women having wider, adverse effects, while bringing an unquestioned Chris Brown onto your show as a cool guy everyone’s trying to impress.
This is not to say Brown can’t ever work again. People separate the awful artist from the awesome art day after day. Each of us compartmentalizes and draws lines on the regular on this stuff, and anybody attempting purity on this will fail.
However, there’s no room to separate Chris Brown from anything in this Black-ish episode. You can’t make an episode about black men mistreating black women and then uncritically put a serial abuser in a guest role.
Simple shit, guys. Talk about taking all the air out of your own points.
Black-ish’s regular non-interaction between Dre’s home and office lives is accentuated by Brown’s presence. He’s never around the other women on the show, not even the female CEO. Did Wanda Sykes ask out of those scenes? Makes you wonder.
It’s not that the show hasn’t had its blind spots before. Particularly, they have been around gender, as the show is filtered so much through Dre that Bow doesn’t get as much time or emphasis.
And then there’s continued antics between Bow and Ruby. Oh, the wife and mother-in-law don’t get along well, with MIL giving 32 flavors of “You’re a bad mother.” Never seen that before. (And “Richard Youngsta” doesn’t skimp on that in the B-plot.)
Sometimes it looks like the Black-ish creative team knows it has this issue, and tries to do something about it. Earlier in the season, Rainbow shone in the real-as-hell “Being Bow-Racial.” The episode addressed some of the most guarded, “in house” issues within the black community, and the episode’ – colorism, black men’s fear of white women, everyone’s fear of black women, and finding a place among black people when half of you isn’t.
But hey, who cares? Chris Brown in stinking up the entire episode, and I hate all of this.
For an episode that considers the dilemma of the white gaze distorting work by black artists, especially when it’s black people behaving badly, putting Chris Brown in the middle of it does no favors. When the white neighbor laughs and laughs at Dre’s original Uvo commercial, she mentions that it’s funny “like Madea.”
Oh, Tyler Perry, the bulls-eye of respectable, cosmopolitan black people everywhere, 10 years ago. It was chic to profess your hate for Perry and his empire built on drag, mediocre plots/dialogue, problematic colorism and gender issues. To deny his roots in the church and chitlin circuit theater, a for-blacks-by-blacks world that Perry brought to the masses.
And, yes, I wager much of that revulsion was tied to concerns of how the white gaze would use those images against us, to demean us. I remember that especially homophobic episode of The Boondocks.
But, and I speak for myself and others I have read/heard in recent years, it seemed as if many black folks made their peace with Perry. In those pre-Scandal years when prominent roles and black creator-driven projects were even more scarce, Perry was out here employing more black actors in his self-owned, independent studio. That even if they don’t rock with Tyler Perry, they could respect that and let him be. He serves black audiences foremost, white gaze be damned, if it’s considered at all.
In 2017, the former attitude on Perry feels very 20th century. The latter, more 21st century. In 2017, we have Queen Sugar, Lemonade, Atlanta, Insecure, Get Out, and Moonlight, all making art about black lives apparently unfettered by white gaze in any way. You have How To Get Away With Murder, with Viola Davis taking off her wig on network TV. You have Empire and Love and Hip-Hop, which week by week flaunt their ratchetness and tango with white gaze.
Black-ish co-creator Kenya Barris is 42, and the show does in part instruct non-black audiences on what it means to be black. He has said the show is a variation on his own life and Dre his surrogate. The very premise of the show, down to the title, is about Dre trying to reconcile his old-school, deprived past with his privileged, new-school present, and how that affects his sense of black identity. Some of the best bits in the show is when we have interplay between Dre, his parents, and his children. You can see the ethics change, even when basics of black struggle never change.
Barris co-wrote the “Richard Youngsta” episode. And, frankly, Dre being concerned about Madea and the white gaze when his bigoted neighbor watches the old Uvo ad, seems pretty old-school. Even the “Will somebody think about the children?” responsibility stuff with Jack and Diane feels pretty old-school and hollow.
Because what does it matter if you have Chris Brown on the set? For a show that takes up the mantle of explaining blackness to white audiences, what are you teaching them now?
When you bill your show as social responsible, that reputation can be destroyed quickly. Black-ish definitely took a hit, and it can’t withstand a few more.
Of course, this episode is followed by the return of Raven-Symone as Dre’s sister! Ack!