Bobby Brown wants you to witness his pain

A new documentary finds the R&B star with a new prerogative: healing his grieving family.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - FEBRUARY 20:  Bobby Brown of New Edition performs onstage during "The Culture Tou...
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In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” late essayist and culture critic Joan Didion approaches grief with a surgeon’s precision. It was her brain on the operating table because Didion struggled to comprehend back-to-back tragedies — her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness — descending on her psychic peace. What happens to our mind when death becomes a constant ritual marking separate stages of our life, almost in cursed succession? If Didion couldn’t touch the neurological root of her hurt, she could at least follow the symptoms as they moved through her body and burrowed into the synapses of her life. The book was her way of making sense of surroundings that were still recognizable but no longer familiar.

Bobby Brown has been living through grief since childhood and trying to understand his world for just as long. A shooting-star musical career snatched him from racial and sexual trauma, placing him center first into the chaos and gluttony of fame, where chart-topping hits and history-making moves bookended multiple interactions with the law. The self-serving machinations of music executives fractured his long-time relationships, and ambition became the elixir that Brown hoped would reconstruct his environment into one he understood. His marriage to Whitney Houston seemed to represent a peak that would offer stability, and yet before he turned 50, he would lose the love of his life and two of his namesake children, Bobby Brown Jr. and Bobbi Kristina Brown. How does his mind find respite?

The A&E documentary series Biography: Bobby Brown, split into four parts airing over two days, acts as the surgeon revealing the layers of Brown’s brain and pointing out the sources of a pain that’s clung to it like a second membrane. The pain is a heavy one, noticeable in the ways his shoulders slouch even as he recalls the sensational choices he made in his youth — blowing a million dollars in a day, buying $50,000 cars, and then discarding them at the airport as he caught countless flights. Unlike a similar spate of documentaries that have premiered and promised unfettered access — Tina on HBO, Janet Jackson via Lifetime, and Netflix’s Halftime for Jennifer Lopez — Bobby Brown truly delivers in its quest to humanize a larger-than-life figure. As I watched each 40-minute episode, I realized what makes this project land like a cleansing scream where others have only seemed to exhale in resignation is Brown himself.

Throughout a life that’s been villainized and reduced to two eras — before and after Whitney he’s one of a handful of artists in his generation who remains candidly comfortable with being fallible. There is no myth to protect or be enamored by because Brown has lived not as a projection, but as a foil wrestling with his own extremes. In the documentary, he finally plows his emotional depths to discover alongside the audience what it was about his life that made him feel most in control when he was hanging off a ledge.

The creation of New Edition is the story of lore in Black Boston. These five boys — Ronnie DeVoe, Michael Bivins, Ricky Bell, Ralph Tresvant, and Brown — entranced thousands across the country by adopting the treacly ballads made famous by Motown heavyweights like the Jackson 5 and Debarge, retooling them with something specific to their personalities. According to Tracey J. Jordan, a senior director of music and entertainment relations at Sirius XM, “Ronnie was the smooth, sex symbol guy, Ralph was the singer, Ricky was slick with the bomb harmonies, Michael was actually the business-minded one, and Bobby was the showstopper.” For Brown, this insatiable, almost selfish need to take over the stage and pull as much as he could from every note led to his ousting from the band. And yet, for the first time, viewers see the reasoning for his full-out state of mind. It was the grief. One that had been pushed to the corners when opportunity came knocking but later resurfaced when he started to feel boxed in and grew fearful of returning to the life he “had danced everywhere and every day” to leave behind. Each bold move that left audiences screaming and executives stupefied was one step closer to his search for a complete release.

Each bold move that left audiences screaming and executives stupefied was one step closer to his search for a complete release.

From his boyhood growing up in the Orchard Park Projects of Roxbury, Brown watched his best friend die in front of him after being harmed by someone just as young, then saw his mother attacked with a billy club by the police. He later fled from a priest who attempted to molest him when he was temporarily placed in a group home after his mother’s assault. He’s been dancing around grief his whole life, and through the documentary, we see his performances of rebellion as attempts to wrench his mind and body back into some semblance of peace.

“What do you know about Black trauma?” seethes Kendrick Lamar on the single “Mr. Morale,” off his recent album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. When Brown saw police brutality and white mobs hurling bottles at school buses taking Black children into white schools, he realized that the world knew nothing of his trauma, and if it did, it didn’t care enough to address it. So he refused to be packaged, choosing to live audaciously because if well-behaved Black people endured cracked skulls and rabid crowds, resistance to social propriety is a state of being he could embody and make his own utopia.

In his Longreads essay, “To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time,” Matthew Salesses writes, “When your beloved dies, your memory is at risk. Your past no longer fits your story of who you are. In order to change your story, you must change either time or memory.” When Brown speaks of his children who passed away in 2015 and 2020, the memories he shares reflect the times he returns to most often: for his son, it’s videos of him recording and performing; and with his daughter, it’s their final conversation where she’s looking forward to seeing him after months apart. He’s living in multiple times, holding onto the moments when life around him made sense and making peace with the reality that his choices—including future experiences with his late children — now exist in a past that only he knows. If he forgets it, then that time has ended.

While slowly pricking through Brown’s inflated defenses, this documentary makes viewers revisit their own failures to empathize with a figure conditioned to think magically since childhood. Celebrity is constructed around refracted realities, and each visible projection holds very little room for equilibrium because as the world shifts, so do the images bouncing off the persona. Public life came at Brown quickly, and fans swooned over the cocky boy who became the explicit, a targeted performer and then was left as a bereaved father. In Bobby Brown, we see him grieving and attempting to settle into a different type of fatherhood and romantic partnership. Although the brazen demeanor is still present, we catch glimpses of a man quietly imploring the world to remember his lived devastation. Brown has been grieving, and now he’s looking to be witnessed by the people he entertained.