Airing on the 40th anniversary of the events it chronicles, this special VH1 Rock Doc tells the story of how the Godfather of Soul cast a ray of light during one of America’s darkest moments. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis; as the news spread, riots quickly swept through Baltimore, D.C., Newark and dozens of other cities. Boston started to burn as well, before a hastily arranged broadcast on the local PBS station of Brown’s long-scheduled Boston Garden concert on April 5 brought peace to the city.
Although Night follows the classic talking-head format, it’s easy to discern the outlines of a feature film waiting to be made—the protagonist would be Tom Atkins, a young African-American Harvard Law student and city councilman who came up with the idea and pitched it to newly elected mayor Kevin White. White and Atkins are both candid and engaging as they recount the surreal process of arranging the broadcast, which was planned without Brown’s knowledge. The performance footage is as fascinating for the presentation as it is for Brown’s legendary moves: The TV announcer introduces “Negro singer Jimmy Brown and his group,” while audience members rushing the stage throughout the show keep the police nervous and force Brown to mediate between the cops and the crowd.
Over the past four decades, Dr. King has become so iconic that it’s hard to imagine the impact of his death if you didn’t experience the aftermath yourself. In the film, Princeton’s Dr. Cornel West offers a metaphor that beautifully encapsulates King’s significance and the tribute Brown offered from the stage: April 4, 1968, says West, is the day America lost its best friend.