The film opens in 1993 with James Brown walking through a darkened hallway as an audience chants his name. He hears the voices of people he knew throughout his life. The film then cuts to 1988 in Augusta, Georgia; James learns that his private bathroom in a strip mall he owns was used without his consent. As he confronts and then forgives the trespasser, he accidentally fires a shotgun, attracting the police.
During the 1960s, James and his band decide to travel to Vietnam to show support to the black troops, where they put on a well-received show. In 1939, James is raised in the woods by his parents (Susie and Joe Brown), whose marriage is fraught with financial struggles and physical abuse. James performs in a singing group, The Famous Flames, formed by Bobby Byrd, whose family sponsored his release from prison, a penalty he paid for stealing a suit. James lives with the Byrd family and becomes lead singer of Bobby’s group. In 1964, manager Ben Bart convinces them to let The Rolling Stones close The T.A.M.I. Show instead of The Flames. The Flames upstage the Stones, and, exiting the stage, James tells the Stones, “Welcome to America”. In James’ childhood, Susie leaves Joe, and Joe threatens her with a gun and keeps James. Joe continues to abuse James until Joe joins the army. James is left living with and working for his Aunt Honey, who runs a brothel. At her home, he attends church and enjoys the choir.