Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for March 26 through April 1 is “Richard Youngsta,” the 19th episode of the third season of ABC’s Black-ish.
This week, Black-ish tackled some of the themes it tackles best: the importance of seeing yourself represented in popular culture, the double-edged sword of having to be a so-called “model minority,” and the complex web of expectations that comes with being anything other than white.
Those themes all come to a head when family man/advertising exec Dre (Anthony Anderson) tries to launch a campaign for a champagne brand that features an irritated black woman turning into a happy-go-lucky white woman. This commercial Dre creates also stars a potentially controversial rapper — who, as it happens, is played by real-life controversial rapper Chris Brown.
It is, to say the least, a confusing choice on Black-ish’s part.
Casting Brown — a man with a long record of abusive behavior — in the part of a cool famous guy whom everyone spends the whole episode trying to impress would be questionable enough on its own. Casting Brown as the linchpin of an episode all about double standards and oblivious men doing wrong by black women is astonishingly tone-deaf — and a major misstep from a show that usually makes a point of knowing better.
Chris Brown’s role in “Richard Youngsta” is especially frustrating because the episode tries to make important points about black representation in pop culture
Since the beginning of Black-ish, Dre has prided himself on being a strong black voice who will tell it like it is to anyone, from his family members to the clueless white co-workers grinning at him from across the conference table. He’s full of himself, but good at his job. He’s passionate, but sometimes hyperbolic in the pursuit of making a point.
In “Richard Youngsta,” Dre tries to do what he does best — and falls flat on his face.
While creating a commercial for Uvo champagne, Dre and rapper Youngsta (Brown) coin a singsong phrase, “Put some Uvo on it!” that’s supposed to demonstrate Uvo’s ability to instantly improve any celebration. (And it will immediately get stuck in your head, so fair warning if you decide to watch the video.)
The ad sees Youngsta pouring the champagne all over anything he thinks needs an upgrade. When Dre shows the ad to his family, his kids think it’s great, but his wife Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) and mother Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) are horrified: Did he and the other giggling men who worked on it really not notice that they had Youngsta pour Uvo on an annoyed black woman and turn her into a smiling white one? Did it not occur to them that the ad might be a huge insult to black women watching it? To say nothing of the fact that, well, it’s just kinda dumb.
Dre is immediately defensive. He insists he’s an artist, as Bow, rolling her eyes, notes that “you had a man pour champagne down his crotch.” He says that if his white guy co-worker were to make the same ad with Justin Bieber, he’d win “all kinds of awards” for his troubles — a point Bow concedes before delivering a hard truth. “As a black man in advertising, you have a different burden,” she tells her husband.
What follows is a pretty interesting conversation about how black professionals don’t have the same room to experiment and mess up like their white counterparts do, and the infuriating expectation that anyone who’s not white can — or should — speak on behalf of their entire race. And as Ashley Ray-Harris points out in her A.V. Club recap of this episode, these points are ones Black-ish itself knows well:
Like the show says, black people have a different burden. There are fewer of us on mainstream television. There are fewer of us directing movies. There are fewer shows that focus on the diversity and complexity of our culture. So, the few shows that do exist, unfortunately, have the burden of representing an entire race for the majority.
Eventually, Dre sees the error of his ad firsthand. First, Bow shows the ad to the family’s racist white neighbor, who finds it hilarious. Then Dre stumbles upon a heartbreaking scene in which his young son makes fun of his twin sister by trying to “pour some Uvo on it” to make her go away. During that latter moment in particular, Dre realizes that this ad could reverberate in ways he didn’t intend — especially when multiplied by Richard Youngsta’s cool capital — and pulls the ad over his co-workers’ objections.
Both of these scenes, and the points they make, are solid. But they would have been a lot more so if Chris Brown weren’t involved. With a grinning Brown at its center, “Richard Youngsta” plays into the exact kind of hypocrisy the episode says it’s trying to bat down.
Or, to borrow Bow’s words in the face of Dre’s initial defiance: “You don’t see a problem with that? ... That’s the problem.”
A brief primer on what Chris Brown has been up to — and why having him on Black-ish is so disappointing
If you’re trying to make a point about how black men have to live up to an unfair set of standards and attempting to illustrate how depictions of black men and women in pop culture can have a huge impact beyond what was originally intended, you really shouldn’t pin that point to Chris Brown.
Brown’s record of disturbing, dangerous, and abusive behavior is at least as prolific as his music career. In 2009, he beat his then-girlfriend Rihanna and left her with a swollen face, a split lip, and several bite marks on her arm. In 2011, he stormed out of a Good Morning America interview with Robin Roberts and smashed a window in his dressing room. Since then, many different women have accused him of shoving, punching, and pointing a gun at them, with the most recent incident occurring in August 2016 and ending with a standoff between Brown and the Los Angeles police.
Brown has also called Indian-American comedian Aziz Ansari “Aladdin” for criticizing him, and once dressed as a generically Middle Eastern terrorist for Halloween.
As my colleague Constance Grady has explained before, there is absolutely a double standard at play in the entertainment world in which white men with abusive histories still get plenty of work and recognition while black men with the same histories see their careers suffer. But that doesn’t, and shouldn’t, mean that men like Brown deserve a pass for consistent crimes. And it really doesn’t mean that Black-ish — a show whose self-awareness is usually one of its strongest assets — should ignore this history.
If Black-ish had cast someone without Brown’s record in the role of Richard Youngsta, the moment when Dre’s youngest daughter looks up sadly at her father while her twin brother jeers might have been a much more powerful one about the responsibility of representation. But by enlisting Chris Brown to play a crucial part in this particular lesson, Black-ish sucked the air right out of its own point.
Black-ish airs Wednesdays at 9:30 pm on ABC. Previous episodes are available to stream on ABC.com and Hulu.