In Adrian Maban’s 1978 documentary “Soul Brother Number 1,” James Brown—known as the Godfather of Soul and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business—defined his genre of music this way: “Soul is spiritual. Soul is truth. Soul is realism. Soul is survival.”
And if Hollywood has its way with “Get On Up,” the Brown biopic starring Chadwick Boseman, soul will also be profitable. The film, which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, may gloss over some of the more turbulent details of Brown’s life, namely the “fourteen children, sixteen grandchildren, eight mothers of his children, several mistresses, thirty lawyers, a former manager, an aging dancer, a longtime valet, and a sister who’s really not a sister but calls herself the Godsister of Soul anyway” that Sean Flynn described in GQ back in 2008. One thing is certain: “Get On Up” will reintroduce Brown’s enormous musical and cultural legacy to a newer, younger and whiter audience, one that may not have been paying too much attention when he was alive.
It will do so at a time when Hollywood is uniquely focused on the remarkable and often tortured lives of some of America’s greatest black musicians. Projects based on the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone and Miles Davis have all been screened or announced this year, bringing to the forefront questions of race, power and access in Tinsel Town. There’s always ambivalence in the black community when Hollywood tells our stories. That feeling is amplified now that the lens is turned onto black artists whose work played an important role in politicizing listeners.
“There’s a risk of trivializing their impact on the black experience, particularly in the period that all of these films seem to focus on-that’s the Black Power Movement,” says Rickey Vincent, a musicologist at University of California, Berkeley and the author of two books on funk music.
Already, each film has been mired in different levels of struggle. Spike Lee spent years trying to finance his own James Brown film and was originally tapped to direct what ultimately became “Get On Up.” But after co-producer Brian Grazer lost his rights to the film and Legendary Pictures wanted to cut costs, Lee was replaced by white, Mississippi-raised director Tate Taylor (“The Help”). Don Cheadle had to crowd-source money to produce “Miles Ahead,” his film based on Davis’ work. And Zoe Saldana’s casting as Nina Simone was just the first in what turned out to be many controversies surrounding the movie about the singer’s life. Director Cynthia Mort says she hasn’t been allowed to see the finished product and is suing the company that produced it.
The drama behind and in front of the camera could be taken as business as usual in Hollywood if not for the outsized political influence of its subjects. Both Brown (“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud”) and Simone (“Mississippi Goddamn”) were instrumental to black America’s political evolution in the 1960s and ’70s. There’s a suspicion that these new films will sanitize their legacies.
“The black presence in America is feared and fetishized at the same time,” Vincent says. “There’s this embedded desire to satisfy an appreciation for the presence of black people and yet somehow neuter the actual voice, the dangerous elements of it.”
University of Southern California professor Todd Boyd points out how these films follow in the footsteps of 2004’s “Ray,” the Ray Charles biopic. That film went on to become a box office hit, grossing $125 million worldwide. According to Boyd, studios can bank on James Brown’s popularity without being concerned with what he calls “black cultural sensitivity.”
“I think what we have seen over the last several years in Hollywood in terms of films about African-Americans have been movies that have to do with history or some historical subject,” says Boyd. “Hollywood has historically viewed subjects about African-Americans as all the same. They don’t necessarily recognize genre. So the black theme of the moment is history.”
But according to Vincent these mainstream films may be about black people, but they’re not for them.
“Black folks don’t want to talk about how much they had to suffer within these limitations. They want to talk about breaking out of those limitations. James Brown was one of those people. Miles Davis was one of those people. Jimi Hendrix was one of those people. Nina Simone was one of those people. These are people who were revolutionaries. They broke out of all of the boundaries, and they scared the shit out of white America. For somebody to come along and try to tell a story that boxes those people back into some aesthetic cage could be very problematic.”
There’s no better way to celebrate James Brown than to listen to his songs. Earlier this month J. Period released an hour-long tribute to Godfather of Soul featuring archival interviews and original music. Prince, Michael Jackson and Kanye West also talk about how Brown helped shape their styles.