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

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One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that Get on Up uses Little Richard to address and provide the most insightful statement regarding the economic and social racism that Brown and all African people experienced during that era. (To be clear, the film tells the truth that Little Richard not only dropped economic and social racism knowledge on James Brown, but, truth be told, Richard spent his entire life dropping this same knowledge on America yet has been ignored and minimized for being the bitter and flamboyant gay dude).

In this sense, one understands that the director, Tate Taylor, is seeking to show or focus on the complexity of racism in America and the multiple and complex ways in which African people responded to racism. Brown, himself, is a man with middle-class desires that often grapple with sensibilities developed from being impoverished and undereducated. The scene in which young James Brown removes the shoes from a lynched man speaks volumes to the suffocating umbrella of White supremacist terror under which African people lived, and it also shows the type of cold, matter-of-fact, and sometimes inhuman responses that African people were forced to engage for their own survival. Thus, as the film shows, Brown fluctuated violently between his responsibility to the race and his selfish desires for his own existence, as the film has him say more than once “James Brown takes care of James Brown.” while in the same breath discussing the needs of “Black folks.”

Further, this is indicated well in the scene in which Brown is on an airplane expressing his frustrations of being called a separatist for associating with H. Rap Brown and the Nation of Islam and being called an Uncle Tom for meeting with President Johnson. (Of course, the film would be more accurate if Brown were discussing his meeting with Nixon rather than with Johnson, because his support of Nixon was the root of anger in the African American community). Yet, many miss this aspect of the film because it is presented, again, in such a quick episodic manner, which should not be a flaw because a film can show only so much in two and a half hours and because people should not expect films to provide their complete history lesson. However, the reality is that many — probably the vast majority of people — who view Get on Up will not know this general aspect of American history or the specifics of Brown’s life, but can we fault the film for a viewer’s lack of knowledge?

Another aspect of institutional or racial oppression that the film addresses is the “Battle Royal” scene, which not only connects the film to Ellison’s Invisible Man and Wright’s Black Boy, but it also makes vivid the type of self-demeaning and dehumanizing oppression under which African Americans lived as they were systematically forced to attack each other for the reward of crumbs from the American pie. The so-called “crab-in-the-barrel” syndrome, with which African Americans have been labeled, is a result of centuries of being forced to harm other African Americans to survive or gain favor with the White power structure. Additionally, the concept of the Battle Royal can also be read as the metaphor of the manner in which various African-American movements and ideologies have been forced to wage battle for the right to garner the one seat at the American table reserved for the one and only speaker of African Americans. (In fact, Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is a spoof of Washington’s speech known as the “Atlanta Compromise” to show the lengths to which many have gone to become embraced by the White power structure as the “speaker of the race”).