As part if its Reel Music Film Festival, the Northwest Film Center presents "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," Monday, Jan. 19 at 7 p.m., at The Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.
For anyone not familiar with the deeply controversial political stands of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the aftermath of his assassination – or the genius of recording artist James Brown – this film is a must-see.
Director David Leaf ("The U.S. vs. John Lennon," "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & The Story of SmiLE") sketches the last year of King's life, and his violent death, when King's decisive stand against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War angered many in the Civil Rights movement as well as the White supremacy movement and the highest levels of the U.S. government, possibly triggering his assassination in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
What makes this documentary about King's murder uniquely compelling is that it's framed within the often-overlooked story of soul superstar James Brown, and the blossoming of his consciousness as a recognized Civil Rights leader in his own right.
King's last days are set out alongside footage of Ku Klux Klan meetings, Black Panther events and urban ghettoes where unemployment ravaged local families.
On April 5, 1968 – the day after King's shooting – riots erupted in hundreds of urban communities across the country in response to the news that a White man had gunned down the nation's champion of nonviolence.
Leaf has unearthed rare film of Brown's singular performance at the Boston Garden on April 5, 1968, weaving the live concert footage together with scenes of the riots that elsewhere that day burned whole neighborhoods to the ground from coast to coast.
Hours after King's shooting, in Boston, Mass., where the Black community was segregated to the outlying suburb of Roxbury, city officials were alarmed to discover that Brown – a performer that none of the White political elite had even heard of – had a scheduled concert at the Boston Garden guaranteed to draw thousands of youths to the city center, where Boston Mayor Kevin White (also interviewed in the documentary) and others were convinced a riot would break out.
When White moved to cancel the concert, popular R & B deejay Jimmie "Early" Byrd teamed up with Tom Atkins, Boston's only Black city council member, to convince the mayor, local public television station WBGH and James Brown himself to broadcast the show on television. The move had the effect of keeping thousands and thousands of local residents off the streets and glued to their TV screens.
In fact the show was broadcast live – by a bemused WBGH camera crew whose live music film experience had previously been limited to The Boston Pops orchestra – and then was replayed immediately, keeping the city streets deserted until after midnight, without a single arrest or police incident of any kind, unlike Washington D.C., Memphis, Detroit, Baltimore and an estimated 125 other cities across the United States.
Brown went on to become the first Black performer to travel to Vietnam and perform for the troops, and became known as The Godfather of Soul, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Soul Brother #1, and the King of Funk. He died on Christmas Day in 2006.
The documentary story is told in part through the gripping comments of Princeton University Professor Cornel West, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, the Rev. Al Sharpton, music historian Rickey Vincent, historian Robert Hall of Northeastern University, and Brown's bandmates in The Fabulous Flames.
"Where other artists were Black – Nat King Cole, Sam Cook, even the Motown acts were able to cross over from Black to the mainstream — James Brown made the mainstream cross over into Black," Sharpton says. "He made us acceptable as we were, and that was a big deal."
For more information about the film showing call 503-221-1156 or visit www.nwfilm.org.