If you ever wondered why James Brown was referred to as the hardest working man in show business…
…then the movie Get on Up should help you understand why. In the film, we see how James Brown grew up in extreme poverty in rural Georgia under terrible parentage and still worked his way up to become arguably the most influential and respected musician of the modern era. As a musician myself, I may be showing my bias by admitting my love for Brown’s music, so I went into this one expecting something pretty good, and by and large, it was. Reviews for Get on Up have been mostly positive, but there seems to be an elephant in the room that keeps it from being a great film. I noticed it pretty much right off the bat, and once learning about how the film was produced, the problems with it are nigh impossible to ignore.
But before I delve into that mire, allow me to first explain what–or in this case, who–saves this film and makes it worth watching: Chadwick Boseman.
I’ve only seen him in a few movies so far, [Draft Day and 42], but from what I can tell from his performances, this guy has all the makings of a star, and I really hope he continues to get work. This is only his fourth movie, and he’s already shown that he can carry it. Every other critic who’s given the movie a positive review has been going mad for his performance. Just like Jamie Foxx was when he played Ray Charles, we never see an actor pretending to be the character; we just see the character. This may be taken as a bold statement, but as great as Jamie was, I honestly believe that Chadwick became James Brown more than Jamie became Ray Charles.
The rest of the cast–save for Dan Aykroyd–all give great performances as well. If you’ve seen the director’s previous movie, The Help, then you should already be well aware of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. As great as Chadwick was, it can be easy to overlook the other great performances, and I believe they deserve to be recognized as well.
That’s pretty much where the good aspects end and the troubling ones begin. Simply put, the wrong people were hired to make this movie.
Here’s the film’s director, Tate Taylor.
And just like Taylor, the entire creative team on this film was also white.
I’m explaining this because this gives some insight into the problems with the movie. After over two hours of film, I still felt like I barely knew anything about who James Brown was besides the fact that he was an amazing performer who had occasional eccentric behavior. Shockingly, I think I actually learned more about Little Richard than I did about James Brown, and Richard’s not in the movie for more than five to ten minutes. Many of the highlights in James’ life and personality are glossed over and lightly touched upon because…well, they happened and the production team thought it had to be mentioned. To not beat around the bush, the editing of this movie is pretty choppy and confusing, which made it difficult to determine at what point in time we were supposed to be at, there was an overemphasis on the musical performances to a degree that I thought I was watching a well-shot concert movie, and the development of James Brown as a character was botched from a writing standpoint because he’s rather all-over-the-place, and we’re only told the Wikipedia version of his life.
The only reason there’s any development with the character in the least is due to Chadwick’s performance. That’s because he gets who James was. Tate and crew clearly do not. They only care about James Brown the performer, not James Brown the man. There’s a very short scene in which James has a group of black children from Watts and Compton join him in the studio to record the song “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud.” This was a song that addressed prejudices towards black Americans and declared the importance of empowerment. Does this scene go anywhere or inform the audience about any of the people involved in it? No. In fact, I’d be surprised if it takes up 1% of the film’s run time.
For all of his faults, James Brown was very well respected by the black community at large for his advocacy for positive political and social movement for disenfranchised people of color in America. The filmmakers seemed to hardly care about his relevance outside of his music, and that’s the problem. We’ve got a movie about one of the “blackest” men in American history–for lack of better terms–and his story is being told through the lens of white people with a fundamental lack of awareness of why this man is remembered and regarded so highly outside of his musical contribution. This was a complaint many people had about The Help, and considering that the same director was at the helm of each movie, it’s hardly a surprise that he’s repeating his mistakes. They even consulted and interviewed many people who knew James Brown, including Rev. Al Sharpton and *Mick Jagger, and yet his social significance was still overshadowed by the creative team’s idolization of his dancing and singing.
To summarize, Get on Up is a good movie about a fascinating and complicated pop culture icon who is brought back to life by a gifted actor who understands and respects the source of the story. Unfortunately, sub-par writing, misguided direction, bad editing and a general misunderstanding of who this man was kept it from being something really special. Hollywood, here’s the lesson, in case you missed it; if you want to make films about people who experienced and fought against prejudices like racism, you aren’t alleviating the problem by not inviting those same people to the table when you decide you want to tell their story. Last year’s Best Picture winner was 12 Years a Slave, a movie which had a black director with a black writer telling the story of another black American from a black perspective. It can work. It will work. It does work! Stop pretending that you know how to tell audiences about the black experience better than black people.
*Mick Jagger was also one of the film’s executive producers.