Last night, I did something that I never thought I would. I went to a movie theatre to watch a documentary about Chris Brown. Suddenly thrust outside of my bubble of fuckboi intolerance, I was shocked to exit my cab and find a line snaking out the theatre door and around the corner. The crowd was mostly women, though I did talk to two 25-year-old men in line who admitted that their bromance was sparked by a mutual love of Brown’s music during their freshman year at NYU. Fans were adorned in Chris Brown T-shirts and obviously excited for another personalised glimpse into the singer’s life, via Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life. This was #TeamBreezy, and I was more than a little nervous that someone I knew would recognise me in line, and mistake my journalistic curiosity for fandom.
Truth be told, I can’t remember feeling so disconnected from a group of Black women in my life. Hell, I’ve willed myself to watch the Bachelorette for the past three Mondays because of Rachel Lindsay. But this was different. In fact, it was my experience sitting among these young Black women, watching their reactions and listening to their only partly hushed side-conversations during the film that impacted me the most. I wasn’t just witnessing the engaged fan base of a controversial pop star. It’s never that simple.
Viewing Lemonade is a ritual of honour toward Black womanhood; Kanye fans come together to be understood (and sometimes disappointed) at his shows; a Trey Songz set is a night of feminine sensuality. Last night, a Brooklyn movie theatre became a collective reflection of the heteronormative and problematic relationship between Black men and women.
Not even the harshest Chris Brown fan can deny his talent. His accelerated rise to fame is a result of his rare ability to hit the trifecta for an entertainer: He can sing, dance, and put on a good show. We can name the other Black artists who’ve mastered this and hit the top 40 on a single hand: Michael Jackson, Usher, Beyoncé, and Breezy. The biggest frustration from Brown and his supporters (some of whom are featured in the film, like DJ Khaled, Jennifer Lopez, Tyga, and Usher) is that this extraordinary talent is often overshadowed by the negative press that trails him constantly. It’s a trend that he can't seem to avoid.
Welcome to My Life is primarily a retelling of his rise to fame and the incidents that have landed him in jail, in court, serving community service obligations, and on probation. He vividly recounts what happened in the Lamborghini on that fateful night in February 2009, and hurries through the story about the world finding out about his daughter before his own girlfriend. It was in these moments that I was most uncomfortable, not because of the content on screen, but because of the reactions from the audience around me.
When a clip of Rihanna claiming to be hurt by Brown played, an audible hiss went up around me. The girl to my left said, “She never talked about what she did.” Others shook their heads. I remembered how Rihanna went back to Brown less than a month after the incident, fervently insisting to the press that Brown isn’t a monster. When the camera flashed to Karrueche, more lips smacked around me, especially after they revealed that she broke up with him via Twitter. But I remembered Karreuche standing by him while he crept around with Rihanna.
Obviously, Brown has an extremely loyal fan base. But given that this base includes a huge number of Black women, I can’t help but wonder how much of this support is related to how we are taught, from a young age, to love and support Black men unconditionally. Even if it’s at the expense of ourselves and other Black women, we must lean into whatever trauma or pain they’re bringing to the table. I know too many families who simply advise their daughters to avoid the lap of a certain uncle because his gets a little too handsy, while still making room for him. We avoid calling the police when we’re in danger, because protecting Black men from the justice system is more important than protecting ourselves from them. And when Black men are amazingly talented, it is more important to support their art and talent than harp on their endless string of bad decisions.
In the doc, Brown implies that he is tired of “giving people something to talk about.” But a number of headlines about Breezy are mysteriously absent from the film. The former beauty pageant contestant claiming that he pulled a gun on her, Brown stalking and harassing Karrueche in the wake of their break up, agreeing to a fight with Soulja Boy over some heart-eye emoji, and the restraining order filed against him to name a few. I believe in redemption, but Breezy isn’t there yet.
Brown demonstrates a lot of accountability for his actions in Welcome to My Life. He takes ownership of his inability to control his anger, his lack of communication and dishonesty in his relationships, and his own ability to self-sabotage. He makes it clear how his traumatic past contributed to his actions and why he’s so passionate about his art. For most of last night’s audience, that appeared to be enough. And I wondered: Should any of these women find themselves in an abusive relationship, will they blame themselves? Will they wonder what they could have done to be more supportive? Will they accept and engage in that behaviour as normal?
I don’t blame any of these women for being fans of Brown’s music and art. Again, he’s an undeniable talent. But to insist that women like Rihanna and Karreuche — and perhaps women like me, who are just so over him — are out of line for feeling that way is problematic, dangerous, and heartbreaking.