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James Brown's moment after MLK

Maybe if I had been a fan of James Brown and his music I would have known about his actions on April 5, 1968, the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Instead, I am just now finding out he is credited with quelling violence in Boston that night when about 100 other major cities became war zones fueled by the hopelessness and anger spawned by King's murder.

Brown was scheduled to perform in the Boston Garden, then a 14,000-seat arena. The city's mayor, Kevin H. White, who had been in office about 100 days, decided it wouldn't be prudent to bring that many people — especially young, emotionally fragile, frustrated and grieving black people — to downtown Boston.

There had been minor flare-ups in Roxbury, a black community 4 miles from downtown. Neither White nor his advisers, including chief of staff Barney Frank, now a U.S. representative, could comfortably assure residents that venturing out to the concert would be safe.

Thomas Adkins, a black city commissioner, and James "Early" Byrd, a Boston radio disc jockey, explained to the mayor that keeping James Brown out of Boston, especially after King's death, would encourage rioting rather than prevent it.

That began the intriguing behind-the-scenes negotiations that award-winning director David Leaf captured in his documentary, The Night James Brown Saved Boston.

It shows not only the tightrope city leaders walked trying to keep peace, but also the business side of Brown who had contract restrictions that had to be met.

"I had known the general outline of the story long before I got involved," Leaf said.

The aftermath of King's assassination triggered "an American civil war in the 20th century," he said. "James Brown was pulled into the battle, and then he rises to the occasion. To be the one to be able to tell that story is exciting."

The documentary premiered in Boston and then was first shown on VH1 in April 2008, 40 years after the concert.

One World Films, a non-profit organization that presents films that increase awareness of issues such as culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, will sponsor a local showing at the Kentucky Theatre at 2 p.m., Jan. 18, in celebration of MLK Day. Admission is free.

There were a lot of risks involved in holding the Boston concert.

In addition to possible unrest, Brown himself could be in danger of a copy-cat assailant. As the documentary pointed out, no one checked for weapons at the door back then.

Or Brown could be seen as disrespecting King's memory by frolicking about so soon after the tragedy.

What the group came up with, and there are no shortage of people taking credit for the idea, was to hold the concert and televise it over PBS-affiliated WGBH in Boston.

It was a brilliant idea, but there were many obstacles to overcome.

As big a draw as Brown was at that time, the group hoped people would stay home to watch the performance. If they stayed home, the city would be safe.

The problem was, if the concert was televised, ticket-holders would flock to the Garden for refunds, decreasing Brown's take for the evening.

He didn't like that.

Plus, other accounts said Brown had an exclusive contract with a New York company that prohibited any of his concerts from being televised.

And then there was the PBS crew, which had never filmed a concert quite like Brown's before or captured so many primal screams on delicate audio equipment. In fact, few of those involved knew who James Brown was.

And then there was that sticky problem with Brown's money. Who would pay the $60,000 he was demanding?

Some of those interviewed on film include the Rev. Al Sharpton, Brown's friend for more than 35 years; civil rights activist and Princeton University professor Cornel West; Mayor White, Commissioner Adkins, members of Brown's band and Brown's manager, and some who attended the concert.

You'll have to watch the movie to see how it all turned out.

"What I learned as a storyteller was to get out of the way and let the story tell itself," Leaf said by phone last week. "I was very determined that this story was not told from a white point of view.

"I'll pat myself on the back and say I think I succeeded in doing that."

The documentary painted a different picture of Brown than I had come to accept. He was an entertainer, no doubt about it. But I saw him more as a hustler than an artist. All his hits, with the exception of I'm Black and I'm Proud, or It's a Man's World, sounded the same.

I still think that after viewing the documentary. But the film reminded me that Brown visited Vietnam and entertained the troops there on his own dime. It also reminded me that Brown had endorsed Richard Nixon in his presidential re-election bid.

Brown followed his own drum beat.

The film is worth watching.

"I want to tell great stories about something that really, really matters," Leaf said. "This mattered then, and it matters now. People really can make a difference."

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