It’s no question that Rick James is a legend for helping bring “punk-funk” to the mainstream with classics like “Mary Jane” and “Super Freak”; for breaking down the color barrier in rock ’n’ roll; and for confronting the whiteness of MTV in the ’80s. But how do you reckon with the man who is just as famous for committing sexual assault and perpetuating misogyny in the music industry? To Sacha Jenkins, director of the fascinating new documentary, “Bitchin’: The Sound and Fury of Rick James,” the answer is complicated.
“I think it’s undeniable that he was a brilliant, genius musician and artist, and I think it’s undeniable that he had demons, and it’s undeniable that he did some really horrible, unsavory things,” Jenkins said on a recent video call from Martha’s Vineyard. “So, how do you reconcile the two?”
Jenkins talks about his work on the film with the same analytical approach he took to James’s life, allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions about the person behind the larger-than-life image. There is certainly a plethora of biographical information for viewers to take into account in his documentary, debuting Friday on Showtime. “I just wanted to provide folks the tools to make their own decisions,” he added.
Jenkins traces James’s story chronologically, from the outspoken musician’s childhood home in 1960s Buffalo, which the singer describes as having, “nice hills, ghetto, rats this big,” stretching out his arms in an archival interview seen in the film.
“Bitchin’” details how James began selling drugs there, and how he was in and out of jail several times as a teenager until he joined the military. By 18, he had already experienced the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, getting “whoopings” from his mother and witnessing his father beating her.
“I guess you can say, in a way, I was an abused child,” James recalls matter-of-factly in an interview. “But I had a lot of love in my family.”
It’s fair to suggest that James, who died at 56 in 2004, was already contending with demons he never truly confronted. Even his daughter, Ty James, who is interviewed in the documentary and is a producer, wasn’t privy to the details of his adolescent trauma. “It floated around a little bit, but it wasn’t something that I was totally abreast of,” she said on a separate video call.
The world watched those demons play out in personal and professional affairs that were frustrating, toxic and, ultimately, devastating. In essence, he wanted freedom to be a devil-may-care rock star like Mick Jagger — with just as much access to drugs and women. After all, early in his career he performed with Levon Helm, (before the Band), and formed the Mynah Birds with the rockers Nick St. Nicholas (who would go on to Steppenwolf) and Neil Young. Later, James battled Motown, because the label wanted to place him in the doo-wop genre, and white-owned networks like MTV because they refused to play music by Black artists.
“We’re being sat in the back of the bus, television-style,” he tells a reporter. “This isn’t ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There are Black people here, and we make music. Don’t we exist?”
He had the loud, unapologetic flair of a Black man who grew up powerless, getting beat up by white kids on the block, and who proved revolutionary in another white space: the music industry. In 1981, he called out law enforcement brutality in the song “Mr. Policeman.” “I’m very vocal about injustice,” he says in archival footage. “I’ve never been one to bite my tongue and I never will.”
So, in some ways, James was a hero. Even Jenkins, a musician himself, relates to him. “I was someone who liked rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop, skateboarding — a broad range of things. And I was sort of an oddball,” recalled the director, known for “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” and “Word Is Bond.” He continued, “But today, you can have rappers who are influenced by heavy metal, and no one’s going to say, ‘You’re a white boy or you’re a sellout.’ Rick was an early proponent of that.”
But the empowerment he gained from his success also granted him excess and entitlement he’d never experienced growing up. “You mix all of those early learnings with an environment where no one tells you no, that math adds up to a bad equation,” Jenkins continued.
This “bad equation” included, by the singer’s own estimate, a $6,000-to-$8,000 weekly cocaine addiction, a parade of women in and out of his home — some of whom, the film claims, he videotaped performing sexual acts at parties. “Daddy had his share of women, that’s for sure,” Ty James says in the film.
She first met her father when she was 13 and she and her brother were sent to stay with him. She remembers “walking over naked girls at 7 in the morning.”
This was indicative of the era when rock stars hosting orgies in their mansions or using drugs on tour buses were normalized — even popularized. Jenkins argues that contextualizing the time period is just as critical to examining the musician’s legacy. “You can judge Rick James by today’s metrics, or you can try to be realistic about the times he was living in and what he was doing,” he said.
By maintaining a bad-boy image, James and many others “would probably stand out like a sore thumb and be ostracized” today, Gail Mitchell, executive director of R&B and hip-hop at Billboard magazine, says in the film. Offstage, the budding musician Roxanne Shante recalls how he took her under his wing but also how he referred to a woman he was living with as “Bitch” so many times that Shante thought that was the woman’s name.
Still, the songs he wrote and produced for female acts like Teena Marie and the Mary Jane Girls highlighted a surprising consciousness. “I knew I could write for girls,” James says in the film. “It was easy for me to write for them. I’ve been such an asshole to them that I could kind of reverse and know how they feel.”
But in 1991, he was arrested for holding a 24-year-old woman hostage, tying her up, forcing her to perform sex acts and burning her with a crack cocaine pipe. James served five years in prison.
To omit that period when considering his legacy is to avoid the whole truth and his humanity — both good and bad. That’s something even Ty James, a self-professed “daddy’s girl,” had to face before agreeing to be a part of “Bitchin’.”
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m totally OK with that because my dad did his time for the things he got in trouble for,’” she said. “It goes to show that nobody’s perfect, especially dealing with the type of demons he dealt with. I’d already lived through it. Coming to terms with that was the hardest part.”
As Jenkins said, every Rick James fan has wrestled with these contradictions at some point, including the director. “He processed his flaws in a way that created songs that still stand the test of time,” he reflected. “He made music reflective of his life experiences — being a Black man of a certain class in America. Is it misogynist? Sure. But has misogyny gone away suddenly? Has racism gone away suddenly? I don’t think so.”
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