There is a scene in James Brown biopic Get On Up where the singer walks into a meeting and accidentally discharges a shotgun. The incident is fabricated. It is true that on September 24, 1988, Brown walked into his offices at Executive Park, Augusta, with a shotgun in his hand. But the gun was never fired. According to FBI files, it wasn't loaded and it didn't even work.
Why have the filmmakers invented this gunshot? It seems to serve little purpose other than to set up a weak joke; Brown looks at the hole he has blasted in the ceiling and mutters one of his legendary recording studio vocal tics: "Good God!" The moment would feel more at home in an SNL skit.
To make a joke out of such a sad day in Brown's history feels disrespectful. When Brown carried that shotgun into his offices, he set in motion a chain of events which would not only drastically alter his life but also become a source of mockery until his death -- and beyond, it would seem. Even his biopic milks the incident for laughs.
But the incident is no laughing matter. After Brown left the offices, police were called. He was shot at, arrested and sentenced to six years in jail. The prosecution caused controversy; an international Free James Brown campaign was launched. Just this week, Reverend Al Sharpton cited the incident on the Huffington Post as an example of gross police misconduct. FBI files released after Brown's death suggested his treatment by the authorities in the case had been part of an ongoing campaign of harassment.
Brown's explanation for his actions -- given almost zero coverage, even to this day -- sounded reasonable. He told FBI investigators, brought in after his wife reported multiple breaches of his civil rights by local cops, that he had arrived at his offices and found a door open. Fearing a break-in, he retrieved the shotgun from his pick-up truck and went to investigate. Once inside, he discovered a meeting in progress. He placed the gun on the floor, told the attendees off for using his private bathroom, picked the gun up and left again.
A short while later he was pulled over by a deputy from Aiken County Sheriff's Department, responding to a report about the incident at his offices. FBI files state: "At this time a policeman began kicking the vehicle door and hitting the vehicle with the butt of his gun. This resulted in a window being broken. Because of this violence, Brown locked the vehicle.
"Brown stated that he was in fear of his life. A North Augusta policeman then shot and hit Brown's truck at least eight times and another North Augusta policeman shot approximately nine times at the tyres and hood. Other shots were also fired. Brown later counted the bullet holes in his truck and these totalled 23. Two of these shots hit the gas tank and the tyres were flat."
Brown -- who was not holding his weapon and posed no threat to the officers when they opened fire -- told investigators he tried to drive away but was eventually caught. He was slammed against his truck, injuring his body and face. Later, at Richmond County Jail, he alleged that while still handcuffed, a police officer punched him in the jaw so hard it knocked out one of his tooth implants.
This is not the only incident in which unprovoked violence was allegedly used against Brown by Augusta cops. Brown and wife Adrienne separately gave matching accounts to FBI investigators about an incident the previous year, when they were pulled over late at night. Brown asked why he had been pulled over, but the officer refused to tell him. Brown asked for a lawyer.
FBI files say: "The deputy then grabbed Brown's arm and threw him to the ground... Brown's hands were pulled behind his back and his wrists were secured to each other very tightly with silver-colored wire. Brown at this point began to fear for his life and, because of this, began to struggle. He was then placed on the rear seat of a police vehicle on his knees, with his hands still tied behind his back. He remained in this position for approximately 45 minutes, while the vehicle made at least two stops."
On that occasion, he was eventually charged with speeding.
When Brown stood trial for the gun and 'car chase' incident (officers admitted at trial they had followed Brown, not chased him), FBI files noted the judge refused to change venue - even though it was shown that 90 articles and TV news broadcasts had been aired locally about the charges within a 30-day period, each one carrying the police's version of events.
Unsurprisingly, Brown was convicted. He got six years. Adrienne Brown noted in an FBI interview that a 19-year-old white man receiving his second conviction for similar offences at the same time was given only six months.
No doubt, Brown was at a low ebb in the late 1980s. He was battling substance addiction and had been arrested several times for domestic violence. But neither fact justifies police officers tying his hands with wire and leaving him on his knees in the back of a car for 45 minutes, nor firing more than 20 bullets at him.
Reading the FBI files, Brown's treatment by the authorities during this period was questionable. However, by manipulating events to include the firing of his shotgun -- even accidentally -- those behind his biopic arguably go some way towards legitimizing his subsequent treatment; there is a world of difference between safely putting a gun down on the floor, and carelessly pumping a shell into an office ceiling. The inclusion of the gunshot in the movie means audiences will assume it actually happened. Was the silly joke worth perpetuating such a falsehood?
It is surely irresponsible to insert significant, fictitious incidents into movies marketed as true stories. Besides which, James Brown's life story was about as dramatic as they come; born into poverty and jailed as a teen, he triumphed over extreme adversity to become a civil rights leader and arguably the most influential pop star of the 20th century, whose innovations still dominate the musical landscape.
If you can't turn that into a compelling movie without inventing non-existent shotgun fire, nobody's life story is safe.
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