First, to address the tattooed elephant in the room, let’s talk about the casting of singer–dancer–national pariah Chris Brown as Rich Youngsta, the superstar rapper Dre drafts to appear in a Champagne commercial for a Stevens & Lido client. Surely, even some of Black-ish’s most passionate fans will conclude the show is, to quote C-Breezy himself, “on that bullshit.” Brown technically paid a debt to society after assaulting Rihanna, but beyond that, he’s made no real effort to rehabilitate his public image. It’s probably best to accept that everyone’s mileage varies wildly where Brown is concerned. Black-ish showrunner Kenya Barris has a right to cast whomever he thinks is right for the part, and each viewer gets to decide whether or not they want to watch the final product.
That said, when “Richard Youngsta” begins, Brown seems like more trouble than he’s worth. To be fair, he does solid work with what little material he has, and he brings the same rubbery physicality to his performance as Rich Youngsta that he’s always brought to his excellent dance performances. But considering how minor the role is, it seems odd to court controversy when God knows how many actors could have performed it just as well. Keep in mind, it was just a few months when there was reportedly a behind-the-scenes controversy at Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show over a decision to have him on the show. (The appearance was scrapped at the last minute.) Initially, this episode of Black-ish doesn’t make a strong case for why Brown had to be the guy.
But then an interesting thing happens when Bow and Ruby start in on Dre about his latest screwup. Technically, it’s not a screwup: Dre, Stevens & Lido’s resident black-folk whisperer, books Rich Youngsta and impresses everyone with the offensive commercial for Uvo Champagne. “Put some Uvo on it!” Rich Youngsta says as he douses boutique bubbly on everything in sight and magically upgrades it. One such upgrade finds a nagging black woman replaced by a more agreeable white woman just because Rich Youngsta put some Uvo on it. Between its played-out, misogynistic concept and questionable post-production, the Uvo commercial is basically Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video meets The Last Dragon.
While everyone at work is thrilled with the Uvo commercial, Bow and Ruby aren’t even a little bit charmed by it, and they accuse Dre of contributing to the glut of harmful images of black people. To buttress her point, Bow starts into the history of Stepin Fetchit, whose minstrelsy still haunts the black community some 80 years after the peak of his career. Harmful images have serious and long-lasting repercussions, Bow argues, which is why Fetchit’s name is almost never invoked in flattering terms. (In the episode’s funniest line, Ruby says it’s his fault she no longer feels comfortable taking a nap in front of white people.)
Bow’s speech gets the standard Black-ish documentary treatment, a choice that suggests she’s staked out the moral high ground on the argument. But in a clever twist, Dre reminds his wife and mother that he, too, knows how to use Wikipedia. He gets his own documentary-style montage in which he explains that Fetchit wasn’t just a walking stereotype factory. He was also the first black actor to receive a screen credit, as well as the first to earn a million dollars. The debate takes on an interesting meta quality as Dre and Bow argue about whether it’s justifiable to keep giving platforms to harmful images of black folks and those who precipitate them.
Dre ultimately caves after seeing Jack treating Diane like some kind of basic Uvo ho, so he shoots a new version of the commercial. Version two also features Rich Youngsta, but it’s closer to a Ciroc-style commercial about the celebrity high life. Admittedly, “Put Some Uvo on It” is a better slogan, but Dre feels more comfortable about the message the new commercial sends. Rich Youngsta is apparently fine with either version, and the client is also pleased with it, so all’s well that ends well. The point, I think, is that people are complicated and can’t be reduced to the most unflattering image of them, Chris Brown included.
“Richard Youngsta” feels like a weird episode for season three of Black-ish. Issues around Dre’s job and how he packages black culture for his clueless white co-workers have been a part of this show for so long, this episode almost feels like a rerun. Surely something like this has come up at Stevens & Lido before. Meanwhile, the B-plot is totally evergreen: Ruby thinks Bow is too permissive about the kids’ dining habits and resolves to turn them into proud members of the Clean Plate Club. There are so many episodes of Black-ish that do what “Youngsta” does and better, so while casting Brown wasn’t a misstep in and of itself, the episode itself doesn’t seem like it knows what to do with him. Maybe the person who needed to be doused with Uvo was Rich Youngsta himself.