Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Complicated Life of James Brown

bio pic n. a biographical movie. Freedictionary.com
 James Brown’s Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is an essential part of my life. It was in constant rotation on the soundtrack of my childhood growing up on the Westside of Chicago. Not fully understanding the message, I liked the sound of it blasting from the windows of cars driving through the neighborhood as people of African descent dressed in dashikis and platform shoes with gigantic afros. 
   I remember being in second grade and my drawings began to reflect the beauty of Black people around me as I traded peach and yellow crayons for brown and black ones. The women in my drawings who once had hair cascading down their backs were replaced with women who had huge naturals. So, when I saw previews of the James Brown bio pic, Get On Up, I knew that I would be in the audience watching the life of the Godfather of Soul and “the hardest working man in show business” come to life.
 And while it was an interesting look into the life of a complex man, I was hoping for more. It grazed
 the surface of the life that was James Brown, but there was no depth to the movie. James Brown was a
 complicated man. He was generous and selfish. He straddled the political fence. He was an activist
 rolling both the philosophies of King and the Black Panthers. He wrote the anthem of Black pride,
 Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud as well as America is my Home.
Though he never went to school beyond 7th grade, he had good business sense, but he also squandered
 away money. He was ahead of his time, but also a product of his time when it came to issues of race.
In the movie, singer Frankie Avalon makes the mistake of calling him James and Brown corrects 
Mr. Avalon by reminding him that his name is Mr. Brown.
The movie has definitely created a resurgence in the life of James Brown. My Facebook news feed is full 
of clips and songs. The movie has been positively received, but not without criticism. In an article,  
The Whitewashing of James Brown on the Huffington Post, writer Gregory Allen Howard does not mince
 words in his critique of Get On Up. He claims that James Brown and more than fifty other Black iconic
 figures and black-themed films in development are being whitewashed by Hollywood because there are
 no Black producers, directors or writers associated with these projects. Howard says that this only 
happens with material about African-Americans; the story of Gloria Steinem would never be written
 without women’s input.
The focus of Get On Up is singing and dancing, Howard laments. He believes the film does not look at
 James Brown the activist because the emphasis is on James Brown the entertainer.  “Put James 
in the pantheon of the most impactful Black men of the 20th century and he would not be out of place. 
How can I make such an assertion? One song. I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Howard goes on to say that,
 that song changed the way we looked at ourselves. “One day our heads were down, the next day, 
our heads were held high, proud of who we were.”
Making movies based on the lives of real people are tricky. There is only so much information that can
 be condensed into a movie. I get that. And Black people are especially sensitive as to how our icon
s are portrayed. Because of our history, we like to focus on the things that make the person great, the
 things that make us proud. But failing to show us the human side of an icon creates a false narrative.
 For some, a singing and dancing James Brown with enough background information thrown in to give
 us a peek into his life is enough. For others like me, and Howard, the movie fell short, but for vastly
 different reasons. He thought the movie should have focused more on his activism, and I thought it 
should have given us a more accurate picture of his abusive nature. 
The movie did show how his lack of trust, and control issues, but it completely glossed over how he
 mistreated women because of his childhood circumstances being abandoned by his mother and
 growing up in a whore house. The Ray Charles story showed us the genius as well as the humanity
 that was Ray Charles, and it did not take away from who he was. James Brown had multiple wives
 and eight or nine children from his wives and other relationships. The movie focuses on his second wife
 Dee Dee, played by Jill Scott,  and alluded to some abuse when he slapped her wife because another 
man was looking down into her clothes, and another time when he snatched the phone off the wall
 because she didn’t answer it when he called. These scenes are mild in comparison to the real life abuse
 that James Brown inflicted on the women he dated and married. One such woman was Tammi Terrell,
 half of the dynamic singing duo that was Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye. 
Brown hired a 17 year old Tammi as a background singer, and wooed her into a relationship when he
 was 30 years old—a relationship that was often times violent. He was arrested numerous times for
 domestic altercations. The acting was excellent, and the actor, Chadwick Boseman, who played
 James Brown, deserves at least an Oscar nod. But the storyline was watered down. The fact that
 James Brown was able to survive extreme poverty, abuse and abandonment, and jail time is a 
testament to the resilience of his spirit. But he did not emerge from his childhood unscathed. 
He had major trust issues, was a control freak issues and did not respect women. 
 Do, I need a movie that recreates a scene where James Brown viciously beats a woman with an
 umbrella? No. But if a bio pic is a movie about someone’s life, we have to take the good with the
 bad. Yes, James Brown was a helluva entertainer. Yes, he was an activist. But he was also a 
womanizer and an abuser. We can show stories that reveal demons of those we admire without 
demonizing them. I am a fan of James Brown the entertainer. Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud is,
 and always be an important song to me. And now I know that it was written and performed by
 a talented yet troubled man. . James Brown was fabulous and flawed which makes him human like
 the rest of us.


  1. Yes, a compelling analysis.

  2. great perspective, stephanie!

  3. Jennifer Brown BanksAugust 13, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    Bravo, Steph! Great write up here.


  4. Enjoyed your blog, as usual. I saw the movie and thought it was ok. I wasn't very impressed. I think it's difficult sometimes for people to do biographies because it so much that the writer has to make a decision about the approach he/she wants to take when telling a person's life story. I guess this writer wanted to show that despite a horrible childhood, James had a dream and a goal and brought it to fruition.

  5. I agree Gayl that there is so much that a writer has to make a decision about when doing a bio pic. I thought the movie done on Ray Charles was much better.

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