'Searching for James Brown' Author James McBride on Working With David Simon, the Cross-Dressing Slave Story That Didn't Make It to the Big Screen

The national book award winner dishes on the most surprising thing he learned while researching Brown's history and the stalled plans to bring his novel about a male slave who poses as a woman (starring Jaden Smith) to theaters.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House
'Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul'

This story first appeared in the April 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

James McBride, a 2013 National Book Award winner (The Good Lord Bird), 58, offers a first-person take on the Godfather of Soul in Kill 'Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul (out April 5). McBride, who has written two screenplays for Spike Lee, talks to THR about current and upcoming projects — and one, starring Jaden Smith, that got away.

Your new book is the fruit of interviews with James Brown's friends and family, several of whom had not previously spoken publicly about him. What's the most surprising thing you learned?

That James Brown in many ways was more of a Southerner than a black man. Most of his actions were dictated by the nation he came from, which was the American South. There's so much unsaid and unspoken in the South, not only about race but about class as well. At the end of his life, the people he trusted most with his voice and his money were two white Southerners [manager David Cannon and lawyer Albert "Buddy" Dallas].

You write a lot about Brown's strange relationship with money …

People who grew up during the Depression remember their parents stuffing $5, $10 in the mattress. Money meant security — it meant status. [Brown] always thought if he had enough food and clothes, he would be safe and secure. But even when he had money, the feeling of safety and security was never part of his psyche.

Are there plans to bring The Good Lord Bird, your novel about an escaped male slave who poses as a woman, to the screen?

Liev Schreiber was attached at one point [to play abolitionist John Brown]; Will Smith's son [Jaden] was attached [to play the cross-dressing slave, Henry]. But there was no formal offer, so there are no plans right now.

You wrote Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna (adapted from your novel) and co-wrote his film Red Hook Summer. What scripts are you working on now?

I wrote an episode for David Simon's upcoming HBO series on the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters — the [episode] about [civil rights revolutionary] Stokely Carmichael. His relationship with Jonathan Daniels, the white minister [and civil rights activist] who was murdered [in 1965], was fascinating. Ta-Nehisi Coates, who's also writing for [the show], really wanted [to write] that episode. I didn't understand why he was so hot and bothered until I started reading about Stokely — he's one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement who is truly misunderstood. He would make a great biopic.

What's it like working with Simon?

It was challenging, and you were free to make mistakes. The discourse was good, and the food was good. David is a brilliant cat — I have never worked with anyone that talented.

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