The Complicated Life of James Brown

by Stephanie Gates James Brown’s, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is an essential part of ...

by Stephanie Gates

James Brown’s, Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is an essential part of the soundtrack that is my life. It was in constant rotation on the radio, blasting from the windows of cars driving down the block, and playing on stereos in our homes during my childhood. As the Black Power Movement began taking shape, that song helped usher in a sense of pride in the Black community. Prior to that time period, to call someone “black” was an insult. We reclaimed our African ancestry and loved ourselves as we were. I saw people dressed in dashikis, African prints, and platform shoes sporting gigantic afros. It was a magical period in history; I loved living through it.

I remember being in second grade and my drawings began to reflect the beauty of the Black people I saw around me as I traded my peach and yellow crayons for brown and black ones. The women in my drawings who once had hair cascading down their backs were replaced with women who had big naturals and huge hoop earrings.

For Easter, instead of the traditional press-and-curl hairstyle, I begged my mother to let me wear an afro; she relented. I was skinny with a huge halo of hair around my head in my Easter outfit, and I was as happy as can be. So, when I saw previews of the James Brown bio pic, Get On Up, I knew I would be in the audience watching the life of the Godfather of Soul and “the hardest working man in show business” come to life.

And while it was an interesting look into the life of a complex man, I was hoping for more. It grazed the surface of his life without going into depth. The movie was more about the music, and less about the man. James Brown was many things: an all-around entertainer, a businessman, a husband and father, an activist, and a womanizer and an abuser.

The movie has definitely created a resurgence in the life of James Brown based on the clips and songs in my Face book newsfeed and the number of articles that I’ve read associated with the movie. It has been positively received, but not without some criticism. In an article, The Whitewashing of James Brown by Gregory Allen Howard for the Huffington Post does not mince words in his critique of Get On Up and other films about African-American icons. He claims that there are no Black producers, directors, or writers associated with this bio pic and more than 50 other projects in Hollywood about Black iconic figures or Black-themed movies. Howard is upset that the movie focuses on a singing and dancing James Brown with little regard for his work as an activist. I agree with Howard. The movie does gloss over his activism. Al Sharpton, who worked closely with Brown, was not even mentioned. And the movie really downplays Brown’s abuse of women.

Making movies based on the lives of real people are tricky. There is only such much information that can be condensed into a movie. And Black people are especially sensitive about how our icons our portrayed. I get that. But too many of us believe that by showing their demons, we demonize who they were. But I think that showing their faults does just the opposite. Doing so humanizes our idols. What disturbs is that if their faults have anything to do with the mistreatment of Black women and girls, they are either overlooked or down played.

Brown had multiple wives and eight or nine children from wives and other relationships. The movie focuses on his second wife, Dee Dee, played by Jill Scott. In the movie, Dee Dee is slapped by Brown after he catches a man looking at her breasts. Another time, he snatches the phone off the wall because she didn’t answer it when he called. These scenes are mild in comparison to the real life abuse that Brown inflicted on the women he dated and married. One woman—who wasn’t even a woman when they met—was singer Tammi Terrell who was best known for her duets with fellow singer Marvin Gaye.

Brown hired a 17-year old Terrell as a background singer, and wooed her into a relationship with him. He was 30 years old. The two-year relationship was often times violent. In an episode of Unsung, singer Gene Chandler who sometimes sang with James Brown said that Terrell made the mistake of not watching Brown’s entire performance from the wings, and when Brown left the stage, he beat Terrell badly. Chandler said Terrell begged him call her parents; He did. Tammi and Dee Dee were not the only victims of Brown’s rage. He was arrested and charged with domestic violence a number of times.

.In an interview on said she originally auditioned for the role of one of Brown’s back-up singers. Scott, a big fan of James Brown wanted so much to be a part of the film that a part was written for her—the role of his second wife. So, it leaves one to wonder if, the role had not been written in, would we have seen the volatile side of Brown at all when it came to women? In the numerous articles and clips that I’ve seen, the abuse is a blip on the radar. In the interview with Scott, she talks about her character’s acceptance of who James Brown was and how it shaped what Scott describes as a “hell and high water love” relationship. “In the film, that was my husband who was hard and rough at times but he also was such a great man.” Scott said that Dee Dee’s love for James was so complete that she just accepted and understood what it was. “That’s another kind of woman. I think it got too bad and she had to go.”

The fact that Brown was able to survive extreme poverty, abuse and abandonment, jail time, and racism is a testament to the resilience of his spirit. But he did not emerge from the circumstances of his life unscathed. He had major trust issues, was a control freak, and had no respect for women. My cousin and I were talking about the film, and she said that when she was growing up in the 60s and 70s women expected and accepted “getting their asses beat” especially if they were attractive. It was a man’s way of keeping a woman in her place. It’s 2014, and though we have a better understanding of domestic violence, there is still a commonly held belief that some women provoke men—especially Black women because we’re too strong, too mouthy, and have too much attitude. We saw this play itself out with the recent case of football player Ray Rice and his domestic abuse case and everyone who weighed in on rather or not she did something to warrant being punched and dragged.

Do, I need a movie that recreates a scene where James Brown viciously beats a woman with an umbrella? No, but if a bio pic is a movie about someone’s life, we have to take the good with the bad. Yes, James Brown was a helluva entertainer. Yes, he was an activist. But he was also a womanizer and an abuser. I am a fan of James Brown the entertainer. Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is and will always be an important song because it is on the soundtrack of my life. And I also understand that it was written by a talented yet troubled man.

Photo Credit: miqu77 /

Stephanie blogs at Stephanie's Epiphany

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