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It’s all well understood. The drugs and sex and rock and roll lifestyle is sexy and exciting, supposedly. Music supporters who have yearned to see that lifestyle on screens large and small want to view all of the ins and outs of their favorite musicians’ lives. Even when it comes with a cost, like a disease or ailment or death, audiences still seek out art and entertainment that exhibit these characteristics. With the knowledge that none of the indecency is conducive to living life, they continue to rush to theaters or couches or to devices to get a glimpse into the perversion.
In the 2-part, 5-hour TV biopic The Bobby Brown Story few other places show as much decadence, disrespect for the law, and otherwise buffoonery than this series. It is wholly obscene in most sequences. Why couldn’t there have been a drama not based on anyone’s life but a black figure who runs an Internet company and has to fight the government to secure his copyrights and patents? Where are those stories going to be told? Is this too boring for audiences? Is this not going to get the creative juices flowing for film and TV studios to produce such fair? Instead of the focus being on the mind, on talent, on reason, the viewer is subjected to in the Bobby Brown narrative depravity and utter moral destruction. This is the expectation in our cultural output.
Firstly, most of Hollywood is brain dead when it comes to compelling stories that don’t involve heroics by those with superpowers and capes and immorality with those strung out on heroin or methamphetamine. Anti-heroes abound and in Bobby Brown, the supposed hero is a drug abuser and a philanderer. Are audiences supposed to root for this male lead and say, “Oh, but it really happened. This is based on a true story.” That is the ultimate cop-out in this age. To claim that a dramatization must be of value simply because it actually occurred is the most base statement regarding aesthetics. So get your “To be Bobby then, you’ve got to be Bobby now” t- shirts for Reason First: Why Depravity Reigns on BET.
The Alleged Hero
Now, any of the other major motion picture studios or cable channels that produce content in this country could be held in contempt along with Black Entertainment Television (BET). But the fact that the parent company Viacom gambled on the life of a punk who failed at his family life with his parents, his business manager, and the marriage to the late Whitney Houston paints a picture of what is cherished most: ratings. The five hours that was spent depicting Brown could have gone to coverage of political issues regarding the Trump White House. But nobody wants to watch that. They want to see the wanton acts of promiscuous sexuality, acts of starting force, and frequent substance abuse.
BET is but a microcosm of the entire framework of entertainment today. The show must have been a hit because it was the number one trending topic on Twitter the night that the first installment aired. The show illustrates the feats and falls from grace from a group of so-called Christian artists. They might believe in the unknown and unknowable, but their actions speak otherwise. Or is that the main thing? They can run amok and act a fool in myriad ways but still hasten to the cross for forgiveness. This backward set of feeling stems from the idea that “I can do whatever the hell I want to do now and get saved later.” For BET to showcase the awful acts and ugly behavior only serves as the channel’s reach for more sets of eyeballs glued to the devices and flat screens.
The jail sentences and inability to “just get right” on Bobby Brown’s behalf show to young people that there is only one way to make it in the entertainment industry. The mini-series draws attention to Brown’s inconsistencies, flaws, and moral impairments. The viewing audience gets the chance to say, “Oh, I want to be like that. He’s getting girls and money.” All the while, they reject the notion that it's okay to be an honorable bus driver or ticket counter at the movie theater. No, these shows continue the vicious viewpoint that black men are womanizing addicts who don’t know the meaning or self-discipline and pride. Yes, the word that is almost always said in the negative sense applies to the man of absolute self-esteem. Bobby Brown’s lack of ego is what sets him down twisted and jagged paths in his life in the TV movies.
From youth to grown male (not man), Bobby Brown witnesses some of the most heinous acts of force and tries to balance that with hedonism. He never fully receives the pleasure that he chases in women, alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. He has to find new highs to beat the doldrums of losing money and being sent to the jailhouse. When he confronts his wife about their daughter, also now the late Bobbi Kristina Brown, he throws tantrums and acts out in rage. When Brown confronts Houston’s longtime friend Robyn Crawford (Yvonne Senat Jones), he is malignant towards her. All of this display pertains to the Naturalistic type of art that is so prevalent these days.
The ‘True Story’ Quandary
While BET is not the only one in the game of television showcasing biopics and depicting all sorts of malevolence, they are the frontrunners of Viacom. The network still pulls in millions of viewers to its catalogue of shows. When it’s not a reality show, one can bet that BET will be airing features and miniseries relating to the moral corruptness. Bobby just follows in the footsteps of other BET fair. It’s nothing new for the channel to air other scripted series that focus on real life figures. This argument is nil. Just because it happened, doesn’t mean that it should be dramatized. While there are excellent features such as The Social Network (2010) that show (allegedly) actual events, the trend ought to come to a halt.
That phrase “based on a true story” allows anyone to explain away the narcissism, evil deeds, and harsh crimes that a man or woman has committed on film and TV. It permits the viewer with the opportunity to say that it’s “real” and “authentic.” Viewers like this neglect the fact that when people commit untoward actions, it is a lesson that should be learned through a documentary not in representations on page, stage, or screen. There ought to be room for actual heroes who are not anti-heroes. Today’s lead characters must carry around with them some flaw (sometimes fatal). This leads them to do incomprehensible acts all the while the audience cheers on their wit, charm, or otherwise likability.
To base a story on “true life” is committing a double cinema sin. The producers, directors, writers, actors, and other crew members only can tell the story how they want it to be told. What arises from this are disputes over what really did happen. The second iniquity that occurs is the fact that no matter how painterly the artist is, he still frames a story based on the conventions of actual life. Therefore, the “painting” will still resemble a photograph.
Despite the years of training to write or direct a project, it will come out different than the true-to-life tale. To compress someone’s life into a few hours of time is a magnificent struggle in itself. The filmmakers must be keen about how they present their subject and ensure that they maintain some semblance of objectivity. This is nearly impossible. Most biopics (if not all) are subjective and leave out or color in moments that happened or never took place. In Bobby, the lead character (Woody McClain) has to walk, talk, and be Bobby Brown. Why put so much pressure on the young men and women who make up the cast of the series? All the moviemakers need to do is to craft a character that is not an actual figure and take certain characteristics without duplicating the life or style of the actual person.
In Need of a Hero
Where are the Cyranos, Hester Prynnes, and John Galts? Why can’t we see an upsurge in artistic visions that align with the swashbuckling poetry of a Cyrano? The quiet confidence of a Hester or the moral perfection of a Galt? Why can’t black heroes like John Shaft be a part of the pantheon of names that go with the debased names like Nino Brown? The answer lies with the pulse of the nation and the world. As long as outlaw drug dealers and murderers get as much or more positive attention as smart working, honest people in society, we will continue to see the anti-hero portrayed.
The anti-hero is the leading character type because most people don’t believe that a protagonist can be beautiful, handsome, smart, able to take action, and save the day all while keeping his or her name guiltless. The novelist, playwright, filmmaker, and the TV producer has to dirty him or her up a bit to be palatable to a cynical and backwards world. They have to shape characters like the ballerina in Kurt Vonnegut’s excellent short story on inequality "Harrison Bergeron." They put masks on them and weigh them down as to not be too “above” the reading or viewing audience. BET continues this whole ideal with its depiction of Bobby Brown. He starts off as a street smart kid, grows to be a music phenomenon, and then attempts to throw all of that away with drinking and smoking and snorting. Bobby is an example of not just an actual tale rendered as drama, but one that denigrates and lowers the standards for a male with little real direction in life.
Bobby Brown retained completely more input than say Mark Zuckerberg possessed in Social as a producer on the project. So, even if he could point out that this or that didn’t happen, he could have put those energies into crafting a heroic figure that blasts onto the music stage with flair and morals. Instead of broadcasting to the world the messiness of a protagonist, even if it is himself, the TV producers ought to have delved into the annals of historical figures like Charles Drew, David Blackwell, and Marie Maynard Daly. In the process, they could have been inspired to craft a hero or heroin imbued with intelligence, good looks, and a man or woman capable of getting jobs done the right way, like these real persons.
Audiences want to witness the ruckus in books and on screens. BET is just a jester in the court full of fools that have lined up to profit off of other people’s pain. Now, Bobby Brown will most certainly be taking a deposit for his role as producer on Bobby. But that still does not negate the fact that he is represented as a dope who is strung out on actual dope and cannot seem to gather himself to live a flourishing, happy life as a human being. McClain slums and bums his way across the screen with no attention paid to the man behind the scenes. It’s such a disconnect that it is cringeworthy to watch. And Houston’s character Gabrielle Dennis takes the out-of-her-skull persona of Whitney to new lows in the mini-series. The TV show has produced ire in much of the people that orbited Bobby Brown during his most trying times. A solid performance by Mehki Phifer as Tommy Brown (Bobby Brown’s real life brother) who attempts to keep Bobby grounded and offer some sage advice throughout the movie is the closest that the movie comes to a moral center.
This little crack of life is what saves a sloppy, distasteful film from being a complete wash. It is because of the strength and ethics of one brother to another that creeps just a little bit closer to Romanticism, even if the rest of the movie is hard to watch.