The August 1, 2014 release of the James Brown biopic Get On Up has been a long anticipated event for many music fans and people that grew up with Soul Brother Number One as an integral part of their lives. The film has been praised by mainstream critics and ripped by many who believe it did a disservice to one of the greatest African Americans that ever lived. I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Many of Brown’s closest supporters such as Bootsy Collins and Charles Bobbitt have stated that while flawed, they enjoyed the film also.
If nothing else, the release of the film has given many of us “insiders” into the discourse of soul music a reason to publicly reassess the narrative of one of the most important black musicians – and black people – of our generation.
While Chadwick Boseman’s role as James Brown has been universally praised, and the producers have delivered an entertaining treatment of Brown’s rags to riches story, there are some omissions and issues of emphasis that stand out more and more as sins of omission, particularly when the subject matter is one of the Greatest African Americans that ever lived.
There has been strong criticism that of all the writers, producers and directors associated with the film, none of them are African Americans. This is not a reason to avoid the film, but it is one reason why I was trepidatious when I went to see it.
One should approach the film more accurately as “Mick Jagger presents Get On Up” and the perspective will become clear. Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, is a very sympathetic and strong supporter of soul music and the legacy of black entertainers in his work and of Western popular music in general. He and the other producers are nevertheless coming from an outsider’s perspective and it is revealed in the film in many places.
Here is a – pared down – list of sinful omissions from the film:
1-Emcee Danny Ray does not exist in the film, yet Danny Ray was with James Brown longer than Bobby Byrd was, and was the reliable voice introducing “Mr Dynamite, Mr. Please Please Please himself…” at countless concerts and events for over 40 years. Danny Ray also donned the cape on Mr Brown during the shows and was integral to the stage act for decades. During music performances, the film shows numerous times when the cape is placed on Mr. Brown but the cape holder is conspicuously anonymous. This is inexplicable to any JB fan. Why his character was omitted is unconscionable. Similarly, longtime (black) business manager and confidante Charles Bobbitt was eliminated from the film altogether. There were many backstage scenes in which Bobbit’s sage council and trustworthiness could have been shown, however briefly. Bobbitt’s loyalty was and is legendary, and for it to be rewarded by his omission is also unconscionable.
2-Fred Wesley does not exist in the film. As Mr. Brown’s bandleader off and on from 1969 to 1975, Wesley was responsible for such classics as “Get On the Good Foot” “The Payback,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and “Mother Popcorn” all of which were heard or referenced in the film, yet Wesley is nonexistent.
Further, Maceo Parker’s character was played by a heavy set, comic actor Craig Robinson that resembled Fred Wesley both visually and in terms of temperament. Robinson did not in any way resemble or reflect the smooth, slender dark chocolate hued Maceo. Essentially Fred and Maceo were fused into one person. This was unforgiveable. (It is plausible however in light of the fact that Fred Wesley was among the first of the sidemen to pen his own autobiography which delineated the trials and tribulations of working for the Godfather of Soul. It is possible that the family members that “approved” the script were petty enough to request that Fred Wesley be removed from the story line)
Many of us music collectors figured that once the JB reissues came out in the 1980s, with liner notes from Cliff White and later Harry Weinger, that the days of ignoring the genius of the James Brown band were over… but with the omission of Fred Wesley from this film, they are back again.
Further, during Brown’s 1971 Paris concert, his last great one in the timeline of the film, there are cutaways to the white bandleader (David Matthews most likely) that night. This was a subtle nod to the worldliness of James Brown, and a subtle erasure of Fred Wesley once again. This was troubling to me because it reflects once again an outsider’s view of Brown’s music which ignores the genius of Fred Wesley in the creation and maintenance of the JB’s funk sound of the early 70s.
3-The women are all cardboard cut-out characters with lines that a film school intern could have written, and probably did. They were dimensionless tragic victims of Brown’s ambition, without any complications, back stories or personality. Viola Davis’ role as Brown’s mother was particularly troubling, not because she can’t act, but because we’ve seen that act so many times before. Almost no references to who these people were and how they dealt with life as black women during Jim Crow, was consistently troubling.
Furthermore, there were many other important women in Brown’s life and career, such as Anna King, Martha High, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney and Tammi Montgomery a.k.a. Tammi Terrell, which the movie chose to wipe away from the narrative.
Brown’s third wife Adrienne was left out of the film, as was Brown’s companion Tomi Rae at the time of Brown’s death. These were white women that Brown was passionate about and should have been seen. While the chronology of the film did not make a necessity of their roles, their absence denies a particular element of Brown’s racial ideology that is more complex – and reflective of the complexity of black life in America – and deserved to be seen as such. This leaves little doubt that the film was from a white Brit’s viewpoint of blackness. In the absence of these women, Brown is seen as a racial simpleton, a victim of the binary logic of Jim Crow and little more. He was far more than that.
4-The film re-creates absurd encounters with white pop culture such as the “Ski Party” sequence in great detail. However Brown’s encounters with radical black leaders, while well documented in the literature on Brown, were only mentioned in passing. Brown writes in his autobiography of a face-to-face meeting with black radical H. Rap Brown on the Harlem streets. This would have been a priceless encounter and priceless opportunity to educate the audience, black white and other, of Brown’s steadfast positions on black pride and black power. This was clearly a dimension that the (entirely white) team of writers and producers were not equipped to develop with any authority.
Further, the only references to Brown’s relationship to black power were portrayed in the context of his revealing to his confidante, his white manager Ben Bart. It is an incongruity that would only be generated by a writer/producer with more affinity with the white manager than to the brother from the block. This is where the ‘center’ of the story gets lost. James Brown is a product of America to be sure, but he is first and foremost a product of Black America, and the film lost touch with this point just as the racial consciousness of the nation was on the rise, compelling Brown to remain in touch with his people in ways he saw fit.
5-The film could have dealt with Brown’s visits to Africa – his trip to Nigeria in 1970 when he and his band witnessed the genius of “The African James Brown,” Fela Kuti, and most importantly, his 1974 performance in Zaire ahead of the Muhammad Ali – George Foreman fight, the “Rumble in the Jungle.” This was a true cultural moment appropriately named in the 1996 film When We Were Kings. The filmmakers chose not to emphasize Brown’s worldwide impact as a musician and cultural icon of African / Black identity.
6-The encounter with Brown’s recording of “Say it Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” while exciting, was unsubtle and cartoonish. Out of the blue – and inconsistent with the plot up to that point – the characters were dressed in African garb and natural hair. Then just as quickly, that moment ends and the story moves on. As if Black Power – and Brown’s popularization of Black Power came and went in a whiff, yet it is perhaps Brown’s most lasting contribution to the world.
There are any number of live performances on tape that could have been re-created to show Brown’s towering stance in the community at that moment. Cutaways to the 1968 Olympic games, with the triumphant black power fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos could have been shown, as “Say it Loud” was the #1 R&B song on the radio at that very moment.
Visual images of the Black Panthers, of Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver, Ron Karenga and others that represented what “black and proud” meant to the black community and the world community could have been shown. This is the singular moment where James Brown did not simply cross over to the mainstream as a black artist, he made the mainstream cross over to black. This is perhaps his greatest accomplishment, and the greatest omission from the film.
The cutaway from the gleeful chorus of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” in the film to Brown’s character shoveling dirt on a casket with a Jewish symbol is the most jarring and incomprehensible edit in the film. This is a moment when a sensitive director (of color?) would have embellished the “Say It Loud” moments with cutaways to Brown’s influence on black popular culture, fashion, language, style and identity.
A few seconds would not have been difficult to produce, but instead a moment was cut off, crushed in order to emphasize Brown’s sentiment toward his white manager – deliberately identified as Jewish – just as the film was embellishing Brown’s blackness. It was an inexplicable jump cut from a film making perspective, and a racially insensitive one. It is hard to imagine an African American director making that kind of edit on this film, in that moment. (Furthermore, the son of manager Ben Bart contends that Mr. Brown did not even attend Ben Bart’s funeral….)
7- The film could have easily referenced a young (black)Michael Jackson doing the “James Brown moves” as part of the Jackson 5 audition for Motown. Mick Jagger was not the only superstar transformed – note for note and move for move by James Brown. During a lifetime achievement award for Brown on BET in 2003, Michael Jackson emerges (at the peak of his popularity) to introduce his mentor James Brown and to educate the mass of MJ supporters where he got his funk from. This is on tape and could be reconstructed like the other Jim Crow era events on tape. The King of Pop’s profound debt to James Brown could have been mentioned in less than one sentence but was omitted.
8- The final performance sequence in which Brown walks to a stage and sings “Try Me” with Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson in the audience was given a deliberately intimate feel. But anyone that saw James Brown in the years after his prison release in the early 1990s saw a spectacle of a stage show, with tall glamorous dancing girls and a sprawling stage set reflecting the scope of Brown’s triumphant return. This final scene implied that Brown was a shell of his earlier star power, which was not the case.
Further, the decision to render the climactic scene of Brown’s triumphant life to a forlorn Jim Crow era ballad speaks volumes about the orientation of the all white, predominantly British filmmakers. This did not reflect the triumphant nature of the man’s life. The previous scene, in which Brown is seen as a young boy, still wearing the painted number one on his chest (from one of the few illuminating scenes about the racism of Jim Crow) speaks to the camera and says “I paid the cost to be the boss.” That would have been the proper moment to end the film. On the undisputed triumph of Brown’s life. Period.
9- The film harps on Brown’s isolation and loneliness in the years from the death of his son Teddy in 1973 until his arrest in 1988, as if those intervening years were not relevant to his life. Only to outsiders to the black experience would this be plausible.
The narrative should have continued until The Payback in 1974, and should have featured Browns’ dominant presence on Soul Train, and his strong relationship with Soul Train host Don Cornelius. A behind the scenes dialogue between Brown and Cornelius about the state of black people and black music would have been priceless. But apparently this was “not important enough” in this film about yet another self-made Jim Crow survivor.
In addition there exists footage of a young Al Sharpton on Soul Train during an interview giving Brown a “Black Record” (a prize for having the best black song of 1974, “ThePayback”). Sharpton would go on to become a “surrogate son,” stand-in for Teddy, and an important part of Brown’s self-recovery. But the producers chose to simplify Brown’s loneliness, as if he was in a death spiral for 15 years and not a single event was worthy of inclusion until 1988. And yet to these filmmakers the entire comic-tragic highway chase was worthy of detailed reconstruction on film.
10-James Brown, through his raw Soul Power in the late 1960s and early 70s, taught us how to frame our blackness. Perhaps more than Malcolm, more than Huey & Bobby, it was Soul Brother Number One that gave us the fuel for our emerging black identity. During the first half of the 70s with songs like “Get on the Good Foot,” “Make it Funky,” “Hot Pants,” “Doing it to Death,” “Funky President,” “My Thang,” “Papa Don’t Take No Mess,” “Take Some, Leave Some,” “Mind Power,” Lyn Colllins’ “Think,” Fred Wesley’s “Damn Right I Am Somebody” and “The Payback” all helped us define our “blackness” in a certain way. This film completely missed a means of truly bringing that to light. A quick passage to a deejay in the mix, or a montage of rappers sampling JB, might have illuminated this essential aspect of the great man’s life.
The entire creation of hip hop should be seen as an outgrowth of this fact, yet the fact that hip hop has taken over the world, and is STILL and FOREVER based on the work of James Brown was barely even mentioned.
Having said all of this, I truly enjoyed the film and would recommend that people go and see it while it is in the theaters.
People should realize that it has been many years since we have all been able to see a truly impactful performance of The Godfather of Soul. He was performing up to his death in 2006, but those later shows were relatively mild showcases of a pop superstar rather than a burning beacon of black self-awareness. This film brings back Soul Brother Number One in many entertaining ways despite all of its flaws.
There have been complaints of “why can’t black filmmakers do projects like these” and that white film producers have such privilege they can just peruse wikipedia and stumble on a black cultural icon and get a film green-lighted about them. It is not that simple. The Ray movie took years to get approved, and it was produced by Taylor Hackford, a white man. I also noticed with chagrin that at the peak of the popularity of black film makers in the 1990s with Spike Lee, the Hudlin Brothers, John Singleton, Mario Van Peeples, Oprah Winfrey and others, I don’t remember any of them seriously taking on a biographical project involving a black musical icon. So stop hating on this very thoughtful and professional production and Get Up Offa That Thang and do something to change this situation!
Get On Up should open the door for other films to focus on more events in Brown’s life with greater detail, emphasis and affection. It is a good first step, on the good foot…
written by Professor Rickey Vincent..
author of History of Funk, Party Music and Host of KPFA’s History of Funk