I am unsure where or when I first heard of Chris Brown. I do recall being blown away by his talent—each single bringing more fun and better dance moves than the one before. Brown, just a year my junior, easily sings the soundtrack to my coming of age narrative. I particularly remember his “In My Zone” mixtape rolling off everyone’s tongue during my senior year at college.
However, his Grammy night altercation was also central to many lectures during my senior year. Commonly, many of my professors labeled Brown a youth spoiled by obtaining “too much too soon.” These lectures functioned similarly to the white media who not only berated the actions of a teenaged boy, but the boy himself—illustrating that the majority of the world could not care less about a “beaten” black woman, unless her body was a means to usurp an “undeserving” black prince.
Brown’s recently released documentary “Welcome to My Life” seemingly allows him to tell his own story, to literally and figuratively paint a portrait of himself, under a solicited white gaze. Moreover, while the film functions to reassert the negative connotation that accompanies the name “Chris Brown” it does so under the white management of Riveting Entertainment. This association prompts me to inquire– what is so “riveting” about a black narrative told under the spotlight of white male supremacy?
Now, I like Chris Brown, and I think he is easily the most talented male artist of my generation. I also liked hearing him tell his own story and honed ability to view himself as a combination of his experiences. I will say that after thinking twice about the documentary, it seemed more about reasserting the narrative of Chris Brown, not about rewriting the black male narrative in general.
In my eyes, I have always seen Brown symbolically. When I see Brown, in his innate greatness and troubles, I see all the multi-talented, handsome black men scattered throughout the diaspora, crippled by western colonialism and unable to rise to their full potential without the stain of “other.” But I’m afraid that even after all that has transpired Brown still views his experiences as singular. Although I am unsure if avoiding “blackness” is a strategy implemented by him or his white overseers.
Despite the conscious gaze’s ability to declare race the catalyst for Brown’s experiences, the film, or Brown himself, did not reference Brown’s blackness once—despite race being the elephant in every scene throughout the film. This seems an effort to maintain Brown’s crossover appeal, an attribute that is nothing short of insulting. The theatre was full of black people, mostly young, black women and girls with unrelenting admiration and support for a young man who the world professionally castrated eight years ago. Oddly, this audience seems obvious to Brown’s omission. I was both touched and bothered by the amount of loyalty black women showed a man who avoided the word “black” throughout this documentary and most of his career. Namely, in the part of the film where Brown discloses the details of the night that started his legal troubles, the audience shrieked in horror when Brown said Rihanna spit blood in his face, not when he admitted to prompting her bleeding with his fist. The theatre also erupted with the occasional “ F*&k Rihanna” and “Shut up B*tch” whenever interview footage of her played throughout the film.
I feel compelled to note that I am not a fan of Rihanna because of her general disassociation from Blackness and use of blackness only when it is convenient. But the theater’s resentment towards Rihanna appears to be contingent on a love for Chris—unveiling this audience as a series of unconscious gazes drawn to Brown by the same forces that foments his neutral stance.
Namely, Brown’s personal and professional choices seem an effort to engage the fairer skin and finer featured demographic, a fact that aligns him with other black men of the collective striving for an illusive whiteness. It is striving to consummate this journey that prompts Chris Brown to tell an offensive story in a manner that does not confront the systemic issues of past and present western society. Brown’s career illustrates the black male plight on western soil, namely that fame and fortune does not alleviate the black body from the perils of white supremacy. Conversely, in the shallow portrayal presented in the documentary Brown is a one-man show, burdened with quotidian problems at a superstar level.
Nevertheless, to the superficial viewer, the documentary incites an enjoyable experience. Chris Brown’s charm and evolved masculinity conveys him as remorseful, insightful and likable—and admittedly it is these attributes that fomented my initial interest in the film. But after sitting down to write this piece, I now see the shiny gold chain that Brown wore around his neck throughout the film as a noose placed loosely around his decorated neck, a noose that gets tighter and tighter with every illusive step forward. Brown is not telling his own story, he’s merely reading from a script seemingly saving himself, but in reality aiding the white man upgrade their stock.
It is an essential component of contemporary slavery to stymie the rehabilitation of the oppressed. The oppressed remain oppressed as long as we do what Brown has done in this documentary, personalize systemic oppression. What happened to Brown is the same thing that happened to every other black man trying be white in a white man’s world–and until we acknowledge this pattern it is only a matter of time before black majesty becomes merely a faint memory.