There's a stunning moment, in the middle of "The Night James Brown Saved Boston," when the soul singer - never an advocate of nonviolence - suddenly, spontaneously steps in as a peacemaker. During his famous 1968 concert at the Boston Garden, the night after Martin Luther King's assassination, some black teenagers and young men begin to storm the stage. White policemen approach. Tension builds. The band grows fearful. And Brown starts yelling at the crowd with a mix of fury and pride.
"Step down there. Be a gentleman," he tells one boy. "You're not being fair to yourself, or me, either. I should get some respect from my own people. Now, are we together or we ain't?"
That so many people managed to come together, on a night fraught with fear, is the message of this hourlong documentary, which airs on VH1 tonight at 9. And while the film is timed to the concert's 40th anniversary, it has particular resonance now: As the presidential campaign reminds us of the rifts between black and white, it's good to know that even in dark times, flawed people were working across the divide. Brown did save Boston, in a sense, but not always willingly, and not alone. Yet that doesn't remotely diminish what he did.
The events of April 5, 1968, are seared into Boston lore, but to a large portion of the VH1 audience, they're probably news. On the day after King's death, as major cities across the country erupted into riots, Brown was scheduled to give a concert at the Garden. At the urging of Boston officials, WGBH televised the show. And instead of rioting, much of the city stayed home to watch.
The film, directed by David Leaf and narrated by Dennis Haysbert, is a straightforward retelling of those events, interspersing concert footage with talking heads. There is commentary from Cornel West and Al Sharpton, some of it poetic, some extraneous. There are recollections from journalists and band members who were present at the show.
Most fascinating, though are the stories from politicians at the center of the crisis and solution: Tom Atkins, a black city councilman, and Kevin White, the reform-minded white mayor who faced a crisis he at first had no instinct for handling. Atkins recalls talking White out of canceling the concert to avoid the risk of downtown riots. (It was one thing for Blue Hill Avenue to burn, we learn; what officials truly feared was that concertgoers would bring the violence to the city center. "Right when the crisis hits the white community," West notes bitterly, "things get serious.")
Still, even as the television plan took hold, Brown had to be sold - or, rather, bought - on the idea. Some people, fearing danger, had begun to return their tickets, and Brown feared that if the concert aired on live TV, no one would come. He only agreed to go on if the city would pay him the $60,000 he stood to lose. One strength of this film is that it doesn't lionize Brown; he wasn't magnanimous so much as stunningly practical.
"What you had was two arrogant people, Brown and myself," White recalls. And he remembers telling Brown, "Get up on that stage and I want you to put on a performance, and I don't mean a musical one, either."
It's that performance, from a man so talented and cool-headed, that makes this documentary most worthwhile. As Atkins begins to introduce White, Brown takes over the microphone and calls the mayor "a swinging cat." The crowd seems to cheer in both agreement and surprise.