On Wednesday, Entertainment Weekly broke the news that troubled singer Chris Brown will be guest-starring on this week’s episode of ABC’s hit show Black-ish. This casting decision raises important questions about black entertainment, mental health and the blind eye we turn to violence against women.
Most of us were introduced to the fresh-faced Brown in 2005, when the then-15-year-old Tappahannock, Va., native and musical newcomer released the club hit “Run it!” Since then, Brown’s career has been riddled with a series of arrests, court appearances and public incidents that raise questions about the 27-year-old’s ability to take responsibility for himself and his actions.
Brown’s singing career has been essentially overshadowed by his violence against women.
In 2009, Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault and served five years of probation after viciously attacking singer Rihanna. Yet he didn’t learn much from the experience. After the two “made amends,” Brown still didn’t seem to view the altercation as much more serious than a “mistake.”
Just this month, Brown was served a restraining order after reportedly physically assaulting his ex-girlfriend Karrueche Tran. Her descriptions of the events that transpired between them include her claims of him “punching her in the stomach and pushing her down stairs.”
These aren’t mistakes. They are evidence of long-standing issues with violence against women that the superstar has somehow managed to maintain while nurturing his on-again, off-again singing career.
Some have suggested that Brown’s issues with violence against women stem from substance abuse. To this effect, a Billboard exposé published earlier this month claims that Brown has a crippling addiction to serious drugs like lean (a mixture of “promethazine/codeine syrup and a soft drink”), coke and Molly.
Others have said that Brown’s aggression can be attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar II, both of which he was diagnosed with in 2014. But the fact is, many people live with and manage mental-health conditions like PTSD and bipolar disorder every single day without physically harming anyone else. Studies actually show that bipolar disorder is not linked to violence. Rather, it is substance abuse that fuels the fits of rage against others.
So, yes, this is complicated.
On the one hand, Brown continues to show that he does not intend to take responsibility for his actions or his repeated injuries of his romantic partners. On the other hand, he is clearly self-medicating, which likely causes his violent behavior.
Isn’t it time we started asking his team some questions, though? Why do they continue to watch Brown as he ruins his own life and the lives of others around him? At what point do they have that come-to-Jesus meeting and check him on his behavior? These are the types of preventive (and loving) actions that his family and friends should be taking. But it seems as if they are just along for the ride (a point made by Crissle and Kid Fury on a recent episode of The Read).
Most importantly, Brown joins a long line of black men—like R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, Dr. Dre and many others—whose artistic expression is often valued over their personal behavior. There are fans who would rather wear Beats by Dre than interrogate the irony of the brand’s iconic name. They purchase tickets to awards shows and concerts where R. Kelly will perform, knowing full well that their money goes toward silencing the young black women and girls on Chicago’s South Side who were reportedly sexually exploited by this man. These fans even say things like, “Bill Cosby has done so much for this community” as Cosby himself admits to having drugged and sexually assaulted scores of women for decades.
Simply put, there is no question that Brown has deep-seated issues with women and substance abuse. The two should not be seen as mutually exclusive. And what we shouldn’t be doing is turning a blind eye to one in favor of the other, especially if it is only because we like his music.
The Black-ish team must know this.
Although the producers and showrunners haven’t yet spoken out regarding the casting decision, one could interpret the choice as an effort to support the artist through his rehabilitation efforts. But as late as 2014, the singer was kicked out of a Malibu, Calif., rehab center for allegedly breaking several of its policies—namely, getting “too close” to women. Later that year, Rolling Stone reported on the prospects of a BET-backed Brown reality show that would chronicle his life following his arrest and stint in rehab. While the show never saw the light of day, it seems as though some networks are still willing to support Brown’s behaviors even as he fails to change.
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.
Part of me wonders what the women on the show thought of this casting. I would expect Jenifer Lewis, Tracee Ellis Ross and Yara Shahidi to at least raise an eyebrow.
While delivering a gorgeous acceptance speech at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards after winning for best actress in a TV comedy or musical series—becoming the first black woman to win the award since 1983—Ross said, “It is an honor to be on this show ... to continue expanding the way we are seen and known, and to show the magic and the beauty and the sameness of a story and stories that are outside where the industry usually looks.”
Ross hits on an important point here: Black-ish is such a powerful show mainly because it subverts the traditional storytelling and casting choices in Hollywood. It puts a quirky black family at the center of a universe and looks beyond the typical white veneer that has come to define so much of entertainment today.
With Brown’s role on the show, Black-ish’s producers run the risk of undermining these critical and hard-fought strides. While they are deliberately working against racial stereotypes through their full and vibrant depictions of black families, they still have an opportunity to tackle the nuances and complexities of gender and intimate-partner violence, especially where it concerns black women.
But casting Brown is a step backward. It proves that misogynoir and violence against women have still not registered with many leaders of industry as deal breakers for their faves. It is up to viewers to take to task the casting directors and the responsible parties behind this choice.
What Brown needs is more (and better) people, not more casting credits. Until these record labels, networks and shows grapple with the equal importance of what these artists do both on and off the set, we must continue to hold them accountable.