The James Brown Story Comes to the Silver Screen
by Playthell Benjamin
In her insightful magisterial study “The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright,” Professor Margret Walker says of the great Afro-American novelist “Richard Wright came straight out of hell;” the same can be said of James Brown, an iconic figure in American popular music. Browns life story is both an epic tale about the triumph of the human spirit through the agency of art and a representative anecdote for American civilization – which that peerless interpreter of American culture Albert Murray defines as “any story of steerage to boardroom” or the rags to riches tales of Horaito Alger. It is a story of tragedy and triumph that allows us to look into the life, loves and art of one of the unique American public figures of the 20th century.
The elements of a great movie are a good story, a well written script, imaginative sets and costumes that capture the milieu – i.e. spirit of the time and place – a good musical score, thoughtful creative directing and great acting. This film has them all…an embarrassment of riches. While Shakespeare’s observation that “the play is the thing,” is true enough, it takes actors to transform those words from inanimate symbols scrawled on paper into living breathing believable characters. Through their agency the words become flesh…in a god-like act.
I have never seen anyone do it better than Chadwick Boseman. As I watched him bring the larger than life character of James Brown to life, I conjured up the voice of Sir Lawrence Olivier, who is thought by many to be the most accomplished actor of the 20th century, warning young thespians who aspire to greatness as actors: “Acting is a noble profession but an actor should never be caught doing it.” Boseman must have taken Sir Lawrence’s words to heart and placed it at the center of his art because after a few minutes I completely forgot that he was not James Brown! He was every bit as convincing in the role as Jamie Fox was as Ray Charles….and he won the Oscar for his performance….jes sayin.
It was a strange experience for me because I witnessed James Brown’s entire career. I first saw him perform in 1956, when he was enjoying his first hit record “Pleas, Please. Please.” He was the headliner at the “Two Spot,” the premiere black night club in Jacksonville Florida. All of the great Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues acts performed there. People came from all around, not just Jacksonville, but the surrounding towns and counties, such as St. John’s County where I lived in the ancient city of St. Augustine. Some party people even drove down from Augusta Georgia, James Brown’s home town to check out the show.
Please, Please, Please was burning up the airwaves on WOBS, the radio station serving the large Afro-American communities in the Jacksonville area. Their star D.J Johnny Shaw “The Devil’s Son in Law,” played it constantly. We had listened to the record on the radio and everybody was running to the nearest record store to buy it. So me and my boys were very excited to see this guy James Brown perform live. Never having seen him we were totally unprepared for the spectacle we witnessed. I was actually too young to even be in the club, but since I was singing with a R&B group that was performing on the Sunday Afternoon Matinee I was allowed to enter this magic temple where great music was made.
The Sunday Matinee at the TWO Spot was a talent contest between competing singing groups in the area. It was like a scene in Robert Townsend’s great movie homage to the golden age of live R&B performance “The Five Heartbeats.” The place was packed with pretty girls out to “let the good times roll,” a frame of mind immortalized by Brown’s New Orleans contemporaries Shirley and Lee on their hit record “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll.”
All of the five members of my group, “The Dewdrops,” could croon their asses off; we were members of the Murray High Glee Club, directed by my Aunt Marie, and we sang everything from J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangements of the “Negro Spirituals” – that marvelous body of sacred music produced by Black American slaves – to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s B Minor Mass. Hence when “Bubba Duck” Jackson, a ruggedly handsome football player with a high falsetto tenor voice, fell to his knees while singing “This is Dedicated to the One I Love” – a Hank Ballad and the Midnighters hit – with tears rolling down his cheeks, the girls went crazy! But that was just the dress rehearsal.
Like us, the ladies were there to see “James Brown and the Famous Flames.” After the talent contest was done, with us coming in second in a very tough competition, the Master of Ceremonies announced “It’s star time at the Two Spot! Hereee’s James Brown and the Famous Flames!” The audience exploded in applause and began to move to the groove of the band as we waited for the man of the moment to emerge from the wings. Suddenly this ebony black guy in a white tuxedo with tails strolled onstage followed by a group of back ground singers dressed in black pants. White shirts, black tuxedo jackets with purple satin lapels and bow ties closely followed. He opened with his arrangement of a Louis Jordan hit from an earlier period “Cladonia!”
From the outset his dancing was a marvel, although we recognized that at root it was his improvisations on the “Mashed Potatoes’” and the “Camel Walk” two popular Afro-American vernacular dances au courant at the time, but when James added his unique moves they became something different and something more. It was love at first sight, I fell for the James Brown sound completely, as did my peers, and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime. It was an enchanting evening in a magical place, the Two Spot dance hall and supper club in Jacksonville Florida, where great musical performances was common fare, because most white clubs and concert halls wouldn’t book black artists. They preferred the corny white artists who “covered’ their records with saccharine corny versions aimed at white America – ala Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s rousing Rhythm& Blues hit “Tutti Fruti.”
This movie captures the essence of those magic moments in American popular music and more. The writers, John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, capture all of this in their well written script and the actors bring it convincingly to life under the able direction of Tate Taylor. Alas, despite the artistic success of this film, the fact that these major creative functions were all performed by whites and blacks were reduced to the artistic equivalent of ventriloquist dummies whose movements and speech echo the words and ideas of whites, raises some serious questions about the ongoing phenomenon of Euro-American creative artists appropriating Afro-American cultural ingredients and epic tales that define major black historical figures. What, the thoughtful observer is compelled to ask, does this tell us about the persistence of rampant racism and cultural imperialism in the movie industry.
The broadly learned and insightful Afro-American cultural historian and critic Harold Cruse discussed this issue in depth a half century ago in his masterwork “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” But considering the fact that Tate Taylor also directed “The Help” – a hit film about black maids working for racist whites in the apartheid south of the first half of the 20th century – and the recent hit biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson was also written, produced and directed by whites it’s time to take up the subject of the Afro-American creative artists in the cultural arena again. However neither time nor space affords us the opportunity to do justice to this this critical issue here; that subject will be addressed in a future essay devoted to this topic.
Chadwick Boseman proves that he is not only a great actor, but a hell of a singer and dancer too! James Brown is the most influential dancer/singer in a genre in which dance is central to the performance. Every major dancer in Rhythm and Blues i.e. “Soul” music since the 1950’s has been influenced by James Brown. Some of James Brown’s R&B contemporaries – Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry, et al – had their own moves.
The Delta blues man Muddy Waters was also a great dancer, and Cab Calloway – who was from the preceding generation, taught them all. But James Brown is by far the most influential dancer in the Rhythm and blues tradition. Michael Jackson, Prince, MC Hammer and even the Filipino star Bruno Mars are all extentions of the spectatular artistry of James Brown. And Brown himself belongs to a long tradition of Afro-American vernacular dance. For insance it is easy to see how he was influenced by the great Song and dance man Cab Calloway, who also fronted a dynamic band.
One need only look at such great dancers as Prince, Michael Jackson, Morris Day, MC Hammer, Chris Brown, et al to recognize the indelible influence of James Brown. In Fact MC Hammer made a video calling Michael Jackson out for not giving props to the “God Father” of dance in the R&B idiom.
It is no mystery why Afro-Americans have created every popular dance craze in the US. The ever insightful Albert Murray attributes this to the “tendency of Africans to turn all movement into dance like elegance.” Growing up in Georgia, and spending his early boyhood in the backwoods where he was immersed in the black folk culture that retained elements of West African culture, James attended a sanctified “Holy Roller” church, and witnessed the power of music to move people…and the way the dancing preacher – a fairly common figure in black fundamentalist churches – used music, chants and movement to hypnotize his followers.
The movie captures all of this in a powerful vignette, and affords us an insider’s view of the origins of James Brown’s performance style. It is no wonder that Albert Murray would observe that a James Brown performance created the emotional power of a great revivalist preacher in his seminal text on Afro-American music “Stomping the Blues.” Like Little Richard, Sam Coke, Ray Charles, et al, James began singing in the Afro-American church – an institution that has produced more great original American musicians than Julliard. Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, who revolutionized western instrumental music, as well as the grand operatic divas Leontine Price, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Battle, et al and legions of musicians in all genres were products of the black church.
But James Brown remained close to his musical roots, the black southern country churches and those unlettered preachers the black bard and 20th century Renaissance Man James Weldon celebrates in his epic poems “God’s Trombones.” Of these untutored sable clerics who claimed to be called to the pulpit by God almighty himself, Johnson said “The old time southern Negro preacher had all the devices of eloquence at his command.” James Brown converted that eloquence into music. In him we see the evidence of Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that black folk religion is for “people who love magnificence and can’t get enough of it.”
This however, was not the church of the formally educated black middle class, of whose church services the ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem” and peerless observer of Afro-American life and culture Langston Hughes says was the result of a decision to “Let’s be boring like the Nords” in his path-breaking essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” James Brown, a country boy molded in the hell of America’s racist apartheid South, kept it real and relied on the power of his folk roots for the source of his artistic inspiration. And he brought the funk like nobody else; any R&B or Rap artist who does not understand this is faking the funk!
The movie explores all of this and more, as it takes us into aspects of James Brown’s life that are not well known to many of his fans…this writer included. With Browns’ longtime musical colleague and personal friend Bobby Bird as a historical consultant we get intimate details of Brown’s life that we could not have gotten from any other source. And no doubt this is because of the guiding hand of Mick Jagger in the project. A rock music legend that saw James Brown perform live during a tour of the US and never forgot it – in fact he includes the scene in the movie – Jagger understands the intricacies of keeping a band on point and ready to perform on the road.
Thus we are afforded a view of the problems of a touring band that usually never meet the public eye. We get to see what a strict task master Brown was, docking the musicians pay for every infraction, sometimes seeming petty and ego-maniacal, but the result was one of the tightest bands in the history of the Rock and Roll era. That’s why they were able to respond dramatically to every gesture of his body the way they did. Or go directly to the bridge when he called for it. We all enjoyed watching him cue the band with words or body movements….but we never understood the hard work required to achieve such precision in performance.
However the greatest revelation about the life of James Brown that I experienced is his relationship with his parents and how he was raised. Dirt poor and stuck in the back woods, reliant upon a brutal father whose meager pay working as a laborer in the pulp wood industry was routinely squandered on whisky and gambling, who was ignorant, and a mother who confused and abused, James had to figure things out for himself while yet a child. His mother, tired of poverty and abuse, ran away and became a whore, and when his daddy joined the army to escape his miserable dead end existence in the racist backwoods of Georgia, James was left to live with his aunt, who was the madam of a thriving whore house.
When we look at the conditions these black women endured in the South – oppressed on the basis of race, gender and class – who among us is righteous enough to cast the first stone of condemnation….not I. They played the bad hand they were dealt as best they could, and some of them aspired to better things for the youths than were available to them. This was especially true of James’ aunt who ran the cat house. She told him that he had something special, that one day the whole world would know his name and that he would be fabulously wealthy. Raised by kind hearted hos James got a look at life that was raw like Sushi.
All of these factors contributed to the personality formation of the man the world came to know as the God Father of Soul. He was a man who understood that everything good that had happened to him in life was because of his talent as a performer. And life became very good indeed; luxury jets, fine cars and mansions of many rooms were all his – as well as an endless bevy of black, brown and beige beauties. No doubt he could have had his pick from a multitude of snow queens, but he stayed with the sistas. Yet his childhood memories of seeing his mother turning tricks with soldiers, and all the whores he grew up around, made him more than a tad puritanical about the women in his life. It also made him abusive.
Some of the most dramatic moments in the film involve James and his wife – played by the voluptuous brown beauty Jill Scott – a type A female who stood her ground….what the folks in Georgia used to call a “Tushie.” When he slaps her down in one scene it is shocking to behold: but then, James Brown, like all of us, is a product of his socialization – or lack thereof. Hence it should come as no surprise that he was relentless and ruthless with is band members in his quest for fame and fortune, and a unapologetic patriarch with his women, or that he showered them with expensive gifts and took good care of his children.
We can see the seeds of all these adult traits being forged in his personality by virtue of his experiences as a boy. This film captures it all: the glamour, the tragedy, the good times and bad, the pathos and bathos of Afro-American culture…and most of all the marvelous music! According to the director, Boseman pulled this amazing performance off with only two months of preparation. “We got the go ahead from Universal around the end of August. Chad Boseman had September and October to become James Brown—the dancer, the singer, and played him as a 17-year-old all the way to a 63-year-old. I literally can’t understand how he did it.” Taylor recalls. The resulting product of all this hard work and generous talent is a cinematic tour de force: Bravo!
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.