#MixxReview: Get On Up

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James Brown

The long awaited James Brown biopic Get On Up made its way to the big screen this past weekend. The film, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), starred Chadwick Boseman (42) as “Mr. Dynamite” himself and Nelsan Ellis (HBO’s True Blood) as Brown’s longtime friend and backup singer Bobby Byrd.

Boseman and Ellis deliver nothing less than stellar performances. In fact, Boseman was so convincing that I almost forgot how the real James Brown looked and sounded. Boseman’s moves were dazzling and his impersonation spot on, but despite all that he brought to the film, Taylor along with Jez and John-Henry Butterworth found a way to make a movie about the “Godfather of Soul” that lacked…soul.

The story line jumped back and forth between adolescent James Brown, young adult James Brown, and old and crazy James Brown without much reason to. Taylor seemed to have felt that certain connections between James Brown’s horrific upbringing as an orphan in 1940s Augusta, Georgia and events that transpired later in his life as an adult wouldn’t have been made if he let Brown’s life story unfold in a linear and more organic way.

At times Boseman would look and speak directly into the camera to give  the audience a slight glimpse into the mind of Brown. But this cinematic decision ultimately made light of some of the more serious scenes in the movie, cheapening the gravity of various situations. The one exception was a scene where James strikes his second wife DeeDee Brown (Jill Scott) and then is unable to look directly into the lens or conjure up any words to explain his actions as disgrace is apparent.

There are two more phenomenal scenes which carry weight. One involving a confrontation between adult James Brown and his mother, played by Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt); the other featuring Brandon Smith (Gridiron Gang) as Little Richard where he forewarns Mr. Brown of the wickedness that comes with the music industry. That’s about as deep as it gets. The viewer is introduced to several factors such as Brown’s childhood, drug abuse, and his ego that made him the compelling man that he was. But Taylor only scratches the surface, leaving the audience with not much to take away. Get On Up lacks depth and at times it felt like the writers read Brown’s Wikipedia page (as noted by Gregory Allen Howard here) and then wrote the script.

Because of this the movie relies heavily on the singing and dancing of “Soul Brother No. 1.” And for that reason I left the movie theatre feeling like I had just attended a minstrel show. I’m sure that’s enough for most critics to give this film positive reviews, but they most likely won’t be Black ones. Although James Brown was a musical genius and continues to be one of the most sampled artists of all time, there is much more to the man that was a civil rights icon and one of the most influential Black men of the 20th century. Unfortunately, his life story was co-opted by White British men who in turn gave us little to no insight on the life of “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

If you want something done right you have to do it yourself. Black audiences will continue to learn this the hard way when it comes to the portrayal of our iconic figures and the retelling of our history.

In theaters now.

Star rating: 2.5/5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations)

Running time: 2 hr. 8 min

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