“Say It Loud” Director Deborah Riley Draper on Telling the Complex James Brown Story

It doesn’t take much to get filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper going when it comes to the topic of James Brown. Her new documentary James Brown: Say It Loud (airing Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 on A&E) chronicles the music titan’s remarkable journey from his 1933 birth in a South Carolina shack through his early days as a “buck dancer,” his imprisonment at age 16, the 1956 breakthrough hit Please Please Please, his legendary 1964 TAMI Show appearance, his emergence as a Black Power champion following Martin Luther King’s death and the lasting impact of his extraordinary backup band the JBs, whose taut Afro-Funk rhythms laid the foundation for hip hop and made Brown the most sampled recording artist in the world.

A perfectionist on stage — a bassist wryly recalls in the documentary how Brown fined him and other players $50 each time they hit a bum note — Brown offstage led a highly imperfect life beset by domestic violence, drug use and a second prison term in 1988 followed by a reputational renaissance in the years before his death on Christmas day 2006.

It’s a lot to take in.

But the Georgia-based Draper came well prepared to render James Brown in all his complexity: It turns out that her fascination with the showman ran in the family. “Before I was born, my mother took the train from Savannah to New York City just to see James Brown at the Apollo Theater with her sister,” Draper says. “She loved ‘Get on the Good Foot.’ And my uncle Ed had a little club on a dirt road where they played his music all the time. I thought, ‘Wow, what a magnetic pull this man had on the men in my family and the women in my family! I wanted to understand that.”

The documentary interweaves archival performance footage with interviews featuring Brown’s children. Bootsy Collins, LL Cool J, Chuck D, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis, along with executive producers Mick Jagger and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

Draper, whose previous films include The Legacy of Black Wall Street about the prosperous Black community destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa riots, spoke from Los Angeles about Brown’s artistry, his flaws, and his activism, which included a little-known trading stamp program bearing Brown’s likeness.


Dealing with a man as famous as James Brown, you must have gone through tons of archival material.

I watched hundreds upon hundreds of hours of archival [footage] and listened to so much music. I was trying to hear clues about his life experience, like when we hear [King Records owner] Syd Nathan in the studio telling James Brown how to sing.                              

It’s crazy! Where did you locate the audio?

Harry Wagner at Universal Music Group is kind of the vault custodian. We’d spend Friday afternoons on Zoom; I’d say, “Harry, I know there must be some studio chatter in that vault; go find it!” and he was able to find six or seven-second snippets where you get to hear the interaction and the dynamic. For me, making this documentary was an exercise in listening but also an exercise in finding the most primary source material that we could so we could get an unvarnished look at the man.

How did you decide to structure James Brown’s life story into four distinct chapters?

It’s funny because last week, I looked back at the treatment I submitted [to get the job of director], and it’s so close to what the film ended up being because I knew exactly what I wanted to do in every episode to understand the making of James Brown. What constituted this young child who was born dead? How did he understand his own ability to entertain? That led me to buck dancing and the connection to enslaved people using their talent to entertain white people as a means to economic survival. And then I wanted to look at the part of his life where James Brown was considered an influential civil rights activist, the man who wrote “Say It Loud” on the back of a napkin in his private jet. I wanted to understand his voice before that was written, and his voice after that was written, and how he interacted with his masculinity with his blackness, with his politics, with the cultural currency that he gained and lost and gained and lost throughout his life.


So many comebacks. Prison. Endorsing Richard Nixon. Tax problems. Death of his third wife. Drugs. Prison again. How do you account for James Brown’s tenacity? 

There were so many comebacks; to do that you have to have talent, sure, but you also be confident. No matter where you come into his life, James Brown had the work ethic and resilience that could never be taken away from him. 

To depict James Brown’s early years, you blend audio interviews with evocative black and white archival footage portraying the Jim Crow South of the thirties and forties when James Brown came of age.  What was your source material?

We used archive houses at HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] and also used Children’s Games and Logging, which were shot on a 16-millimeter film in 1928 by Zora Neale Hurston, one of the first black female directors. Almost 100 years later, I got to use her footage to help the audience understand what the South looked like and felt like authentically.

In 1964, James Brown delivered this now-legendary “T.A.M.I. Show” performance right before the Rolling Stones took the stage. Did you want to present that gig as a pivotal moment?

It was important to show young James Brown tearing the roof of the joint on the same stage as Smokey Robinson and Mick Jagger. It was great to sit down and talk to Mick Jagger about the moment when he saw what James Brown unleashed on stage. You look at the audience in that tape, they were mesmerized, regardless of race, regardless of gender – – mesmerized.

Jagger talks to you about the thrill of standing backstage and watching James Brown in action.  

James Brown had that kind of impact on everybody who saw him. Talking to QuestLove or Bootsy Collins or LL Cool J or Chuck D or Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis, there’s a direct line from James Brown as a performer and entertainer and how he managed himself. His life is a lesson, and I hope Say It Loud, the documentary, is a lesson to all of us to own our voices, to say it loudly so people hear you and speak for the people who couldn’t speak before you and speak loud enough for the people who come behind you so they can take it and run with it. Like hip hop did with [1970 single] “Funky Drummer” – – they took it and ran with it!


Your documentary captures James Brown in all his complexity, including the fact that the man who preached love in his music sometimes engaged in domestic violence. How did you approach that aspect of his private life?

I addressed that [violence] by talking to the people who were in the house – – his daughters, Deanna and Yamma. I wanted to understand it from their perspective and get as close to the experience as I could. I thought it was important to look at the entirety of James Brown on stage but also off stage and look at who was his father? Who was his mother? What did that house look like?

James Brown’s father beat his mother. She abandoned him when he was three years old.

That’s why we have Dr. David Wall Rice and Deanna Brown, Black trauma specialists who can unpack Black identity. We know through science that trauma is trans-generational and inter-generational. Trauma doesn’t go anywhere if it isn’t treated. It comes back, and you may not be able to control when it comes back or how it comes back. So I wanted to let his daughters talk to help the audience understand that we’re dealing with a human who had his trauma, who had his demons, and who was both a creative genius and flawed.  

James Brown was very tuned in to the Black community from a business standpoint. In making Say It Loud, were you mindful of how your project could economically impact the local communities where you filmed?

Absolutely. We shot in Augusta, Atlanta, and Savannah, Georgia, so all of those people were local hires in terms of crafts services, in terms of transportation, and even our motion graphics team is based in Atlanta. We impacted every economy where we worked because we hired from the locations in which we were shooting. Side story: Doctor Deanna Brown Thomas’ husband owns a seafood restaurant in Augusta, so when we shot there, we ate there. It was important to me that we supported black restaurants wherever we could.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about James Brown during the making of this film?

Trading stamps.

Not many people know about Brown’s 1969 experiment.

It took me by surprise. An attorney for the Black Panthers, a football player [Art Powell], and James Brown came up with these Black and Brown trading stamps that could be used in Black businesses [in Oakland, California]. They were a strange triumvirate, creating what was almost like cryptocurrency for its time. They tried to establish a pattern of empowerment and entrepreneurship, which was extraordinary even though it was short-lived.

Do any of these James Brown trading stamps still exist?

The University of Virginia has some in its special collection, and I have a copy of the stamp. I bought it on eBay.

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Featured image: “James Brown: Say it Loud.” Courtesy A&E Networks.


Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.