Movie: Get On Up
3 out of 5 stars
The controversy of white director Tate Taylor of The Help directing a film about the musical architect for unapologetic black manhood and swagger kept many from Get On Up. British brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth having written it only heightened the reticence and embarrassment of many.
How is it that no American black screenwriters (outside of a biopic Spike Lee once considered making) had come out with anything for such a monumental figure of black culture who had died back in 2006? To its credit, Chadwick Boseman took the throbbing, dignified composure of his Jackie Robinson portrayal in 42 and threw it off like the cape The Godfather of Soul did away with for encore performances.
Boseman embodied the sweat, pancake makeup and southern preacher showmanship that made Brown legendary. The toughest of critics will have a hard time finding flaws in Boseman’s commitment to the choreography. His camel walk, mash potato and boogaloo are too funky. Those splits are on-the-one and highlight Brown’s trademark flash. It is when Boseman leaves the stage that the film suffers.
Get On Up shows how Brown constructed an iron-clad philosophy for survival and control as he came out of a non-existent home life and abject poverty in Augusta, Georgia. Due to the film’s helter-skelter treatment of different periods in his life, one can only get a superficial sense of how well it served him ultimately.
The film starts with a farcical, poorly executed scene where a high, disheveled, rifle-toting Brown, in 1988, storms into his place of business trying to make sense of his own actions. The transition to the rest of the film struggles to do the same, attempting to pull the underlining meaning from the chaos into the remainder of the film which has far more depth.
From then on, the breadth of the film is its biggest challenge. Brown’s marriages, run-ins with the law, means of coping with changes in the music industry and his undeniable influences on Michael Jackson, Prince and hip hop never take center stage. Honestly, the weight of representing black America during the Civil Rights, integration and the support of Nixon could be enough of a film in itself.
Watching the movie with different generations is this film’s greatest gift. The 50’s and up grin and nod at the black and white memories of how Brown’s 1964 Teenage Awards Music International performance let the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones know who was the boss. The 40s-30’s remember where the showmanship genius behind contemporaries like Bruno Mars and Usher originated. The 20’s and under sit bolt upright realizing something as fleeting as a sampled scream in a favorite song on the radio came from Brown.
It opens dialogue long overdue between the generations. It is for that reason that after seeing Get On Up the film’s detractors and supporters should agree on two major things: Brown’s life is so large that a slew of projects giving further insight are sorely needed and, if black screenwriters and filmmakers do not get up offa that thing and celebrate their own history and trailblazers, somebody else will.
About Dr. William Hobbs
[EM Music & Film Critic] William Hobbs, Ph.D., Florida Memorial University
William Hobbs (aka William Ashanti Hobbs, III) is from Fort Lauderdale, Florida by way of Atlanta, GA. While attending Florida A&M University (FAMU), the college junior was inspired to publish Pseudonymous, a collection of short stories and poems and the novel “The Chosen People: Africa’s Lost Tale of Meroe”, all in the same year. Sales allowed Hobbs to publish ” Unconditionally ” in 1996 as he graduated from FAMU. His passion for writing won him a McKnight Fellowship, which allowed him to pursue a masters and doctorate degree in creative writing from Florida State University (FSU).
Hobbs graduated from FSU in 2004 and now teaches Creative Writing at Florida Memorial University. Hobbs has published an essay and poem in Journey into a Brother’s Soul by Kimani Press. Hobbs is married to Dr. Tameka Hobbs and has two sons, Ashanti and Amiri. He has recently published an experimental novel entitled “North of the Grove.”