James Brown #GetOnUp: There’s More to Being Brown and Black than Meets the Eye

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By C. Liegh McInnis

I just arrived home from viewing Get on Up. Of course, I went with high expectations, but the most I can give the film is a “B” rating. The acting is solid to good, but a seeming lack of budget and the non-linear narrative keeps me from giving the film an “A” rating. There are a few moments where the film feels more like a made-for-TV movie than made for the big screen, and that lessens its appeal for me.

There are just some scenes that seem as if more money is needed to create more authenticity or ambiance. Also, I understand that they are aiming more for a “thematic” feel rather than a chronological narrative, but the back and forth — jumping ahead and then jumping to the past — causes the film to feel a bit choppy, fragmented, or incoherent. Thus, one does not get to see Brown’s career grow and explode. Yes, the audience does get those three or four seminal and career-defining moments, but they seem to lose power/intensity by not being provided chronologically. Yet, even with a “B” rating, I plan to view the film again, partly because of my love for James Brown, partly because it is a good — not great — film, and partly because I like noticing the scenes shot in and around Jackson, Mississippi. I know that last reason doesn’t factor into rating the film, but I was whispering to my wife, Monica, “That’s the Standard Life Building.” throughout the film.

Two excellent aspects of Get on Up are the accurate and stylish cinematography and that it is unflinching in its truth-telling regarding all aspects of Brown’s life, following what Brown, himself, shares in his autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, and in a video documentary, James Brown: Soul Survivor. The film does not try to whitewash or “sugarcoat” Brown’s flaws nor does it turn Brown into a metaphor of Black dysfunction. The film portrays Brown as a duality or complexity of the individual—waging war with one’s negative circumstances.

It is not quite a naturalistic or existential text because Brown is depicted as one who believes in a higher, moral power; yet, Brown is also painted as one who is able to reconcile/minimize/justify his flaws with the notion that the flesh does what the flesh does and God provides forgiveness and understanding. My point is not to debate or justify this position but to show that the film does not create Brown as a sweeping stereotype or as a flat, one-dimensional caricature.

Along with being supremely talented, Brown is shown to be extremely determined, loving, humble, egotistical, selfish, and violent: a human being. Some critics wrongly assert that the film minimizes Brown’s abuse of women. With only two scenes Get on Up shows how evil, irrational, and ego-driven domestic abuse is and that domestic abuse is a learned behavior, showing Brown engaging in the identical behavior as his father. Furthermore, one scene perfectly combines the issue of race with domestic abuse, showing that for a lot of men like James Brown domestic abuse was an irrational and egotistical response to feeling emasculated in a world dominated and controlled by White men even though they lived with — and were supported by — loving Black women. Yet, in both scenes audiences are made keenly aware that Brown’s demons regularly caused him to hit women and that he was a flawed human being for doing so.