Top critical review
Too Much McBride, Too Little Brown
Reviewed in the United States on March 31, 2019
I loved James Brown, and it's clear from page one that James McBride also loved James Brown. However, my impression of his book is that there's too much of the author and not enough of the subject. I was keen to read more about JB, but found my reading time being hijacked by the author's personal story when I was hoping to gain enlightening new insights about the Godfather of Soul.
The beginning of the book is loaded down with too many attempts at establishing black credibility. While I understood the author's anger over an inaccurate TV show about Brown, I disagree that one needs to be black to write credibly about James Brown. I wasn't wowed by cliches like "growing up in the projects", "eating pork, grits and collards" nor by the name-dropping of formerly tough neighborhoods in New York City like St Albans and Red Hook. Finally, I'm suspicious about the author's claim that all black artists are consumed with deep foreboding fear of whites at every moment of their lives. I'm not sure all black artists would agree, but I am sure that black artists don't have a monopoly on feelings of fear and insecurity.
There's altogether too much hyperbole. Yes, James Brown was a phenomenal artist, a true originator, musically brilliant and perhaps even a genius. But was he in fact "the most misrepresented African-American figure of the past 300 years"? Should he be lionized so extravagantly as to claim that he is "perhaps as influential" as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas? And did he really "overshadow every single major black star of the 50s, 60s, and 70s" -- including artists McBride lists like Ray Charles, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and the nearly divine Aretha Franklin? Such comparisons are forced and have no place in a serious biography.
After the first two chapters I couldn't take it any more, so I skimmed through the rest of the book looking for salient information about the hero. There is some, but not enough to justify the book as a new or important biography. It seems more an entreaty to the reader to believe that in the process of sniffing out the faded trail of James Brown's life, the author has gained some unique insights into the human condition and race relations in America. Whether he has or not, I will leave up to you to judge.