On Christmas day, 2006, “The Godfather of Soul,” James Brown, passed away. Now, through a Mick Jagger-produced biopic, his story is getting new life. James Brown’s daughter, Deanna Brown-Thomas, shared with EBONY.com who she wants (and doesn’t want) to play her father on film, who her father really was, and how her family foundation is keeping the legacy of James Brown alive.
EBONY: What was it like, growing up with James Brown for a father?
Deanna Brown: Well, you know he wrote the song, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess?” We as his children, we lived it. [laughs] He always stressed education at home; it was very important to him. He never finished school, he came from a humble and poor background and only went as far as the 7th grade. So, when I got the chance, I went to Columbia School of Broadcasting, and if you’d have asked me what I’d be doing in ten years back then, I’d have said radio, television and film, but after Dad passed and because of Dad’s love for education and with him being such a big giver, I started a music school, the James Brown Academy of Music Performers (J.A.M.P.), in his honor.
Our school has children learning music theory, stage performance, and my dad’s most important lesson: discipline. We’re giving music scholarships to kids and introducing a whole new generation to his music and helping them achieve academically and keeping them off the streets. With the Academy and The Brown Family Children’s Foundation, I was just thinking, what can I do? I don’t sing. I can’t dance like my dad, but this was a great way to carry on his name. Being able to pass that legacy on to another generation, that’s the best part about being James Brown’s daughter.
EBONY: What do you want people to know about who your dad was?
DB: I want people to know he first believed in God. My dad had the Bible opened in every room in his house practically every room. He was very spiritual. He was born stillborn; he had no breath and the midwife had to breathe into him. God had a plan for his life and he made sure to be a blessing while he was here.
EBONY: With your father being so spiritual, how did he deal with the backlash at the time from religious groups opposed to rock and roll music?
DB: He dealt with it by knowing that his music didn’t come from him, it came from God. God gave him every talent that he had, from putting songs together, producing songs to singing and dancing. He would let you know it came from God because he had no education. He had no music education. So if God allowed him to have this talent, whom shall he be afraid of? Whom shall he be ashamed in front of? He also got a lot of flack, even when he made “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” some stations didn’t even want to play that and now it’s an anthem. So he just did what God gave him to do.
EBONY: On top of the suffering that you went through after losing your father, there were also some legal troubles your family had to deal with regarding your father’s estate and who would inherit what. What has that been like for you and your siblings?
DB: Well, I tell you what: my father prepared me for that. He prepared all of us for that. “It ain’t gonna be easy after I pass,” he said. “You’re gonna have to stick together. They’re going to try to rip you apart.” And it’s still coming to light. It has not stopped. You hear the word “greed,” but when you see [it in action], all I can do is shake my head. What people will do; the lengths that they go to, to try and get what does not belong to them. We didn’t even have a chance to really grieve because we had to hit the ground running with legal stuff. People lying here, lying there, but I have grown closer to God through it and I’ve learned to trust and lean on Him.
EBONY: And what about now? Do you feel you have had a chance to grieve your father properly?
DB: I think grieving is going to be an ongoing process. Our daddy died December 25th, 2006, so I know I fake it [during the holidays]. I go in my little hole and drop a tear and keep it moving. Everybody is getting happy because Christmas is on the way and I see [the grief] starts to brew slowly and slowly and when you start thinking back you realize the holidays — “This ain’t fun for me.” So, my heart goes out to people who, when you’re supposed to be around family and you have someone like your patriarch pass on Christmas day. It’s definitely hard to deal with.
EBONY: Do you have any advice for others in similar situations that have lost a family member during the holidays?
DB: All I can say is keep your hand in God’s hand. He is the only source of true peace and true joy, and every year will get better and easier.
EBONY: We’ve just heard word of a new James Brown biopic produced by Mick Jagger that’s in the works. What can you tell us about that?
DB: The deal just got inked, so a lot of stuff hasn’t even happened yet. They’re just starting to crack open the box on pre-production. But they will be working very closely with the family and we will be having our meetings soon. But news broke just as the deal was inked. But we’re looking forward to this being a classic and to showing why my father was respected and will be respected as the Godfather of Soul.
EBONY: Who would you like to see play your father in this movie?
DB: I’m going to be honest with you. Knowing my dad, there’s not going to be anyone who can really play him, but if they come close they are doing a great job. I know it’s going to be a strong actor. A lot of people have mentioned Eddie Murphy and my dad loved Eddie Murphy, he truly loved him, but he wasn’t excited about the thought of a comedian playing him. He’d always say, “Ain’t nothing about my life that’s funny.” So, to me, he was looking for someone who was going to bring some drama to the role. He was a serious guy, so I don’t know. It’s really hard to say who could do a good job with it but I hope that whoever it is that they realize there’s going to be a lot a study and a lot of work involved to get him down!