The Bobby Brown Story, which premiered on BET Tuesday night, opened with a scene of the R&B star (portrayed by Woody McCain) getting wheeled through the halls of a hospital thinking he was going to die. That was followed up with a flashback to a young Brown watching his brother get killed in front of him. From this point on, the made-for-TV biopic followed Brown’s post-boyband life as he endured one tragedy after another while reaching infamy as a solo artist and half of one of pop culture’s most controversial couples. Brown — who co-produced the film — did not gloss over the less-than-savory details of his life. His drug use, his philandering with other women (including a possible affair with Janet Jackson), and his general self-centeredness were all included in the two-part film. Viewers ate it up.
According to Deadline, the series ended it’s two-night run having drawn in 6.6 million viewers. They had a field day with it on Twitter, too. And there are a couple of reasons for this success. For one, The Bobby Brown Story arrived on the heels of two documentaries about his ex-wife Whitney Houston, and another BET biopic about Brown’s former band called The New Edition Story. Fans of Houston, Brown, and New Edition have been eager to hear his side of the story. But there is also another reason that all eyes were on BET for this feature presentation, and it has a lot to do with nature of Black biopics themselves.
As twisted as it sounds, public histories that include violence, danger, and personal demons make for the best entertainment. This is true across the racial spectrum. But there is something unique about Black people’s relationship to trauma. And with portrayals of these intersectional wounds, there is a fine line between sensationalizing Black pain — and re-traumatizing Black viewers in the process — and using it as a catalyst to inspire, educate, and develop a deeper appreciation for the people who shape Black culture. Black biopics, which illuminate the private and public lives of Black celebrities, typically fall into the latter category — and Black people respond with love.
The New Edition Story, which aired over the course of three nights in 2017, was a huge success for BET, the premiere cable network for Black entertainment. It, too, sent Black Twitter into a live-tweeting frenzy. It reinvigorated interest in the discography of the successful ‘90s boy band. And, most importantly, it let people get close to the dysfunction that tore the group apart: drug use, label bureaucracy, and huge egos that resulted in even bigger brawls and years of resentment amongst group members. TNES brought in over 4 million viewers. It set a precedent for network follow ups like The Bobby Brown Story and even The Death Row Chronicles, which took on a six part docu-series format.
Much as BET has found a recipe for success in the behind-the-scene stories of some of the most notorious names in Black Hollywood, it did not invent the formula. Pop culture is filled with retellings that don’t just recount facts and data, but manage to thrill and entertain us as well. Some of the most iconic films of our generation are rooted in personal histories like Walk The Line, The Pianist, and, if I might add, Selena. We love to know what was at stake for people blessed with talent.
The stakes are inherently higher, though, when we’re talking about Black entertainers. We have deeper reverence for our pop culture icons because there is such a long history of denying the merits of Black art, appropriating our creations, and in some cases taking credit for those creations. We are at constant risk of being overlooked and having our stories go untold.
What’s Love Got To Do With It, the film based on Tina Turner’s memoir will forever stand in my memory as one of the best movies of all time. Part of it is the result of Angela Bassett’s amazing portrayal of the singer. But the brutality of the domestic abuse she faced at the hands of her ex-husband, Ike Turner, was truly gripping. In the ABC miniseries, The Jacksons: An American Dream, I got a deeper look at the formation of the Jackson 5 and the early formation of Michael Jackson as a global icon. The Jacksons painted family patriarch Joe Jackson as abusive and hinted at the deep emotional scars that haunted Michael through his adulthood. Jamie Foxx took us through what it was really like for Ray Charles’ to struggle with blindness and heroin addiction in Ray. In 2015, Straight Outta Compton shattered the box office by documenting the rise of hip-hop group NWA. The film served as a dramatized history of gangsta rap’s origins and close ties to the streets.
For Black viewers, the voyeurism inherent in watching biopics is self-reflective in some ways. There is validity in engaging with the deepest wounds of the entertainers we love when they are wounds that we share with them. These biopics, deeply rooted in anguish as they may be, still become beloved Black classics, or at the very least, viral moments because of our shared history. Struggle is a huge part of what unites Black people. We wear adversity like a badge of honor because the truth is that Black folks are disproportionately affected by it. But the merger of Blackness and upheaval is complicated, to say the least. And there is also room to question whose stories deserve to be told. How might the triumphant nature of biopics gloss over some of the details that we need not forget?
When reports surfaced in July that Chris Brown had been arrested once again for an outstanding warrant, my friend tweeted “this biopic is going to be incredible.” And I agreed with her. The same thing can be said for R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and even the late XXXtentacion, men who have both made the kind of mistakes that would make for some really intense re-enactments. The art of good filmmaking means creating characters that people can root for. Movies can elevate people to martyrdom in under two hours, or at the very least give them a damn good redemption narrative. However, who benefits from making heroes out of these men? It’s a slippery slope between who we — content consumers — want our problematic faves to be, and who they actually are.
So many of our Black cultural narratives — from the pillars of the Black church to the emphasis on education, civic engagement, and strong family values — are a reflection of our status as an oppressed group that has had to jump over hurdles in order to see brighter days. The saying goes that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Black people have adopted that slogan as a lifestyle. We definitely respect our legends more when we know they’ve been through some shit. Having any protagonist tie up their loose ends and see clear skies after a proverbial storm makes for good filmmaking across the color spectrum. But when our culture creators follow that story arc, it illuminates the resilience of Blackness itself... for better and for worse.