Black-ish is not afraid to take big swings.
Sometimes the show's attempts to interrogate the culture pay off in brilliant episodes like January's "Lemons," a ripped-from-the-headlines conversation about Donald Trump's then-impending inauguration that grappled with a lot of different ideas about what America means to different people. But sometimes it results in bad ideas like Wednesday night's "Richard Youngsta," which guest-starred one of America's biggest pop cultural villains in R&B singer and abuser of women Chris Brown and acted like that wasn't a big deal.
In the episode, Brown plays a rapper named Rich Youngsta who works on an ad campaign with Dre (Anthony Anderson). Dre is excited about what he thinks is going to be a blockbuster champagne campaign with the catchphrase "put some Uvo on it," but when he shows it to the family, Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) argue that the commercial reinforces negative stereotypes about black people (an ignorant white friend they screen it for says it's funny like how Madea is funny).
They give him a lecture about the immorality of a black man profiting off racist depictions of black people. Dre defends himself that he's doing the best with what he has to work with, but when he sees Jack (Miles Brown) dancing and putting some Uvo on a D he got on a test, he sees that he's wrong. He changes the commercial to a sleek "taste the good life" spot. He kept his pride while doing right by his people.
The positive message was undercut by the presence of Chris Brown, who isn't a role model for anyone, black or otherwise. Brown's once-promising (though still flourishing) career has been haunted by repeated instances of violence he has never done much to atone for. Most notoriously, he once beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna so badly she required hospitalization. He publicly apologized for that, but he didn't change; just last month, another ex-girlfriend was granted a restraining order against him after she accused him of punching her in the stomach and pushing her down the stairs during their relationship.
When news broke that Brown was going to appear on Black-ish, condemnation from fans who expected more from the socially-conscious show was vociferous.
Writing for The Root, Jenn M. Jackson blasted Black-ish for making a tone-deaf casting choice:
"To empower Brown with a guest-starring opportunity on such a prominent black show--which, mind you, employs black female activists who have repeatedly spoken out on issues that women of color face in entertainment--seems counterintuitive and disrespectful to viewers who hold the show in high esteem. No matter what the intention, this casting choice reeks of enabling. It provides a blank check for a clearly ill person to continue to inflict harm on himself and those around him. Meanwhile, it sends the message that virtually any behavior is easily forgiven when ratings are at stake."
The activists she refers to — including Ross and Yara Shahidi — have been silent about Brown's appearance, though as Jackson notes, it's hard to imagine they're happy about it. The show has probably put them in the awkward position of having to go along with a bad decision made by their bosses. I don't claim to know what Ross and Shahidi think — maybe they think the episode was appropriately tough on men like Brown — but there's not a lot of crossover between people who post about Washington D.C.'s missing black girls and Chris Brown defenders. The episode contained dialogue decrying misogyny against black women while giving a pass to a man who has committed acts of misogyny against black women.
Anthony Anderson did speak about it, though, telling Goldderby that "people are going to be pleasantly surprised when this episode airs" and explaining that Brown's appearance came about after creator Kenya Barris ran into Brown at a restaurant and Brown told him he was a fan of the show. When the episode came up, Black-ish offered the part to Brown. It's pretty shocking that no one along the line thought this was a bad idea.
For a show that's usually so thoughtful in the choices it makes to give money and exposure to Chris Brown without ever even nodding toward how problematic it is to align itself with him is disappointing. To do so in an episode about morality in media doubly so. Just because you need a Chris Brown type doesn't mean you have to hire Chris Brown, especially when there are real actors who could use the work. But for whatever reason — probably some combination of Rihanna's apparent forgiveness of him, his undeniable talent and sexism that values "complicated men" over battered women — Chris Brown continues to work, even with people who should know better, like Kenya Barris and Anthony Anderson.
"Richard Youngsta" was a bizarrely big whiff for a show that usually gets it right.
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30c on ABC.