A man is walking through a darkened hall. From outside, an audience is chanting his name loudly. As he takes his walk, he hears voices of people he knew throughout his life. This man is James Brown (Chadwick Boseman).
1988 - Atlanta, Georgia - James, wearing a green tracksuit, goes to a strip mall that he owns, and learns that somebody had been using his bathroom without his consent. He returns to his truck and retrieves a shotgun, to the horror of those in attendance. He addresses the people about who can use the bathroom and when before he accidentally fires a round into the ceiling. James cries, "Good God!" A frightened woman, Shirley Buell (Cleta Ellington), confesses to having used the bathroom. James forgives her, saying she did right by herself. Sirens are heard, and James realizes he must leave.
During the 1960's, James and his band decide to travel to Vietnam to show support to the black troops. Their plane flies in the middle of warfare, with the right propeller getting hit. James addresses the corporal when they land, angry that someone would dare to try and kill him, and also annoyed with the corporal telling him how long he can play, but James disregards this because nobody tells him how long he can keep the funk going. He puts on a show for the troops, and they all love it.
1939 - Little James (Jordan and Jamarion Scott) is calling out for his mama in the woods. She emerges from the trees and runs out, with James chasing her. Her name is Susie (Viola Davis). They go back to their home, when James's father Joe (Lennie James) comes back. Susie chastises him for spending his money on gambling. Joe starts to harass her to get her to bed. She starts to run from him until she willingly jumps into his arms and kisses him, allowing him to take her to bed.
We see some of James's performances with his band, The Famous Flames, performing live before audiences. At one point, they precede The Rolling Stones. James's manager Ben Bart (Dan Aykroyd) tells him about this, and they both believe that The Stones will be has-beens within a year. The Stones watch James perform, admiring his dance moves and energy. Later, James watches The Stones perform on TV and seems to enjoy what he sees. On another occasion, James performs in front of a crowd of white kids, and then imagining himself performing in front of a black crowd where he appears more comfortable.
We shift back to James's childhood. Susie has packed her bags and is ready to leave Joe and her son behind. She walks away, only to return to get James. Joe tries to grab him away from her, but she fights him off. Susie is forced to leave James behind when Joe comes back with a gun. James lives with Joe, who abuses the boy for singing. Later, when Joe goes off to join the army, he leaves James with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), where she makes James work. Honey takes the boy to church, where he takes an interest in the dancing and singing of the choir.
At the age of 17, James breaks into a car and steals a suit. The police chase after him and he is arrested, receiving a 5-13 year sentence. In prison, James sees a group of singers performing, leading him to stand among the other inmates, clapping and singing along with them. One inmate gets up in James's face, and James punches him twice, inciting a riot. Afterwards, James meets one of the singers, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), who was hit in the face with something that was thrown at him. James and Bobby become well-acquainted, and, following James being granted parole, Bobby convinces his mother to let James stay with them. Bobby's sister Sarah (Taura Cherne) takes a liking to James, and Bobby later catches them fornicating in her room.
Years later, James joins Bobby's gospel group. They put on a show at a club as The Famous Flames, following a performance from Little Richard (Brandon Smith). Later, James goes the burger joint where Richard works. Richard goes on a rant about not wanting to make music for the "white devil".
Another flashback from James's childhood shows him and other children being painted with numbers on their bodies and having one hand tied behind their backs, being forced to fight each other blindfolded. James gets beaten easily, but he watches a funk band playing in the distance. It keeps his spirits up.
In the mid-to-late-50's, James and Bobby are at a diner. A man walks in and asks the waitress if she's seen them, as he is an agent from King Records. The boys go up to him and introduce themselves. Later on, James, Bobby, and the rest of the Flames record their first song, "Please Please Please" with King Records. The executive, Syd Nathan (Fred Melamed), isn't very interested in the repetitive nature of the song, but he changes his mind when he hears James singing. Soon, James brings Ben Bart on board as his manager. When the band receives their records, they aren't happy to see it labeled as "James Brown and His Famous Flames". Ben explicitly states that James is the true voice of the group. The others, except Bobby, admit they never liked James, and they quit.
James and Bobby form a new band, with instrument players Maceo Parker (Craig Robinson), Pee Wee Ellis (Tariq Trotter), Nafloyd Scott (Aloe Blacc), and Baby Roy (Keith Robinson). The band performs at the Apollo Theater to an excited audience. While the band relaxes in their dressing rooms, Bobby goes over to James and tells him that a lady claiming to be his mother is there. Susie walks into the room, smiling at James. We then see a flashback of Little James seeing his mother walking with a soldier. James runs up to her and calls for her. The soldier asks Susie if she knows him, but she shakes her head. James runs away, disappointed and angry. Aunt Honey tells James that his mother is a no-account fool, and that someday, he'll be a rich man, because he has the spirit (God) in him.
James has a child, Teddy, with his first wife Velma (Jacinte Blankenship), and then later divorces her. He gets married to a woman named DeeDee (Jill Scott). On one occasion, the couple hosts a Christmas event outside their house, where James hands money to children. Afterwards, James hits DeeDee for wearing an outfit that allows men to stare at her.
James does his best to reach out to the black community. He gathers a group of children and records the song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud". A performance at The Garden is nearly cancelled following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, out of fear that riots may break out, but James convinces the manager of The Garden to keep it going. During that show, several audience members try to get on stage and dance alongside James, but the security guards keep pulling them away. James stops the show to allow the people to dance with him. His music does end up appealing to the white community as well. While staying at a hotel, a couple (Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey) voice their complaints over the noise and abundance of black guests, but even they cannot resist dancing to James's music.
As his success grows, James's relationships with others turn sour. He treats his bandmates like his lackeys and doesn't allow creative input from the others. Maceo confronts James one day about the band not getting paid on time and having to spend their off days rehearsing. Eventually, they all quit and leave James.
Ben dies after suffering a heart attack during a golf game. James buries his friend, tearing as he does so.
After another performance, Bobby sits onstage and muses about following in James's footsteps and taking the stage himself. James is not happy at this thought, thinking Bobby is trying to steal James's thunder. He argues with Bobby and berates him.
We move back to the Apollo, where James asks Susie why she came to see him. He tells her she was never a mother. Susie says she never wanted to be a mother, but she chose to carry him inside her and she did love him. James gives her $100 and sends her away. Before leaving, she looks back at him and says "You so pretty. You so beautiful." When she's gone, James breaks down and quietly cries. Bobby comes back in and sees him. James tells him to make sure that she is well taken care of.
In 1973, James receives a phone call. Teddy has been killed in a car accident.
We go back to the scene at the strip mall. Prior to this, James smokes a joint laced with angel dust. Following the accidental discharge of the shotgun, James is pursued by the police in his truck. He drives through a barricade and has a police car driving next to him, in which he sees visions of both his mother and father. James is eventually cornered outside a factory and arrested.
In 1993, James visits Bobby at his home for the first time since Teddy's funeral. They are on better terms, and James gives Bobby two tickets to his next show for him and his wife.
The scene goes back to the very beginning of the film, with James walking through the darkened hall. He sees visions of everybody from his life chanting his name (from the pastor at church to Aunt Honey and her friends), and remembering how far he's come to get to this point. He gets up on stage and performs "Try Me". The performance moves Bobby and his wife to tears. The audience cheers James on.
The text at the end says that James Brown was and still is considered one of the greatest and most sampled musical artists of all time. He continued to perform into his 70's, at times with Bobby Byrd. He passed away on Christmas Day 2006.
The credits feature real pictures of the Godfather of Soul himself.
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