“When I hit that stage, people better be ready,” says James Brown, played in a barn-burning performance by Chadwick Boseman in “Get on Up” (2014).
In person, Boseman was a gentle soul. He had these big, expressive eyes and high cheekbones that would zero in on you and take you all in. He was beautiful. I met him in 2015 as he came to Santa Barbara to be honored as part of the Virtuosos evening moderated by Dave Karger. He’d deservedly gotten amazing reviews as the “Godfather of Soul” – and was being discussed as a contender for the Oscar. He was not nominated – but still showed up to the celebration. He was grateful and humble – so genuinely happy to be with us. Exactly two years ago, immediately after the global phenomenon of “Black Panther” (2018), he came back to do a Q&A – and stardom had not altered him. He remembered who I was – and told me how much he’d appreciated the tribute at the Arlington. During the interview we spoke about what a role model he’d become to black young people – and what a responsibility and privilege had been bestowed upon him. King T’Challa – as portrayed by him – is the superhero we didn’t know we desperately needed. Students from our local schools were present at the event – and he relished talking with them and indulged them in taking numerous selfies. He was down to earth – generous with his time – a total class act. It breaks my heart to think of the health battle he was grappling with at the time. He emanated self-possession like I’ve rarely encountered in an actor – and a boundless generosity of spirit and grace.
Unable to process this loss at a time in our lives that we have been experiencing so much, I gravitated to seeing him one more time as James Brown in “Get On Up.” Boseman had played Jackie Robinson – one of the greatest baseball players – in “42” (2013) – and soon after he was channeling one of the greatest singers and performers of all time – James Brown. It is without a doubt, one of the greatest performances of the 21st century. What he does is not an imitation. He fully inhabits Brown. He does all the moves – captures all the swagger – does all the splits, but it’s as if we were seeing a rebirth of the well-known musician with Chadwick’s undeniable spark coming through as well. When you first see him moving towards the camera dressed in an all red pant suit – with dashing red silk cravat – you are stunned by the way he gavottes – his fingers flaring slightly to the side. He is possessed. Many times during the film, he will break the fourth wall and address you directly – connect with you – wink at you. His gaze is inviting- seductive and it dares you with a glimmering smile.
“I’m James Brown, and I made a difference,” Brown states. The story evolves as a memory – a stream of consciousness – moving rapidly back and forth in time through important moments in the singer’s life. It will start with the famous incident where he pulled out a rifle on someone for using his private bathroom and the subsequent police chase. We’re quickly reminded of the outrageousness and live-wire characteristics of the legend. The screenplay – co-written by Tony award winning playwright Jez Butterworth and his brother John-Henry – will show glimpses of his abusive childhood and abandonment by his parents. It will recreate a lot of live performances by Brown – and they’re all electrifyingly directed by Tate Taylor. The concert at the Apollo in 1962 is a highlight. In private, he is abusive and an egomaniac. As connected and vibrant as he was on stage, in his personal relationships he remains distant – and irrational. He has a loyal friend in Bobby Bird – he gets him out of jail as a young man, and starts a band with him. Their friendship, which will be tested many a times by Brown, is the backbone of the film. Watching him sing “Try Me (I Need You)” to Bobby is cathartic. Viola Davis plays his mother and has one unforgettable scene with the adult Brown. Octavia Spencer is nurturing and encouraging as his Aunt who runs a brothel. The editing of the film by Michael McCusker – who won the Academy Award for last year’s “Ford v Ferrari”– is a thing of beauty. He parallel cuts between times – compressing and expanding them into a feverish dream – matching the syncopation of Brown’s funk.
It is a tour de force by Boseman – and a great testament of his range and virtuosity. In his short and blazing career he was able to give us so much. I think about his ‘Stormin’ Norman’ in Spike Lee’s “DA 5 BLOODS.” Who else could have played this heroic – inspiring figure – who haunts us throughout the film? He always emanates so much command and strength. I came across this interview that he gave to the New York Times about the roles he played, and the below quote stood out for it gives great insight.
“You’re a strong Black man in a world that conflicts with that strength, that really doesn’t want you to be great. So what makes you the one who’s going to stand tall?”
Available to stream on HBO Max, HBO Go, HBO NOW, Hulu and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV, FlixFling and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth.
Story by Steven Baigelman, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry.
Directed by Tate Taylor
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Craig Robinson and Octavia Spencer
About Actor Chadwick Boseman
Boseman was born in Anderson, South Carolina, the son of Leroy, who worked for an agricultural company and also as an upholsterer, and Carolyn, a nurse. He was educated at TL Hanna high school, where he first discovered an interest in theatre when he wrote a play based on the shooting of a classmate, and at the historically black Howard University, Washington, where he studied directing. He also won a place on a summer theatre course at Balliol College, Oxford; one of his teachers at Howard, the actor Phylicia Rashad, arranged for his costs to be covered by celebrity friends of hers including Denzel Washington. After Boseman was cast in “Black Panther,”Washington joked: “Wakanda forever, but where’s my money?” He taught acting at the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in Harlem and spent some years scraping by in bit-parts on TV shows including “ER,” “Third Watch” and “CSI: NY,” before getting recurring roles on the series “Lincoln Heights” (2008-09) and “Persons Unknown” (2010). His film career took off when he played the baseball player Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013). “It’s the way he carries himself, his stillness,” noted that film’s director, Brian Helgeland. “You just have that feeling that you’re around a strong person.” He came to specialize in movie biopics, completing a hat-trick of real-life American icons by playing James Brown in “Get On Up” (2014), co-produced by Mick Jagger and co-written by the British playwright Jez Butterworth, and the civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” (2017). “I don’t think I would’ve been ready for ‘Black Panther’ had I not done those three roles,” he said… (theguardian.com)
…Those personality-driven roles led to his biggest portrayal – T’Challa, the King of Wakanda and the legendary “Black Panther.” He first appeared in the role in “Captain America: Civil War,” the initial leg of a five-picture deal. The film was the launching pad for 2018’s enormously successful “Black Panther,” which was as much of a cultural touchstone as it was a superhero film. It became one of the highest-grossing films of the year in the U.S. after its February debut, was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and won three. The character appeared again in the massive “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers; Endgame,” which became the films of the years 2018 and 2019, both the highest-grossing of those years, with “Endgame” eventually becoming highest-grossing film of all time. (deadline.com)
…His work after “Black Panther” included the thriller “21 Bridges” (2019), which he also produced. Preparations for a “Black Panther” sequel were in the early stages. “The only thing I can say is that, for people who are hungry, the food is being prepared,” he said in 2019. His final role is in a film adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” to be released later this year. However, his death means that his most poignant performance will be the one he gave in “Da 5 Bloods” (2020), Spike Lee’s film about four Vietnam veterans in their 60s who return to that country decades after the end of the war to collect the remains of their fallen captain. The older cast members, including Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo, play their characters in both the present-day scenes and the early-1970s flashbacks, without recourse to de-ageing technology or make-up. Consequently, they look creaky and weather-beaten next to the captain, played by Boseman. Having never had the chance to age, he is preserved forever as the blemishless figure of memory, which is how the actor will now remain for audiences also. He is survived by his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward. (theguardian.com)
Chadwick Boseman on Playing James Brown
When Chadwick Boseman was approached about taking on the complicated, soulful, split-loving role of James Brown in “Get On Up,” an upcoming bio-pic about the icon, the actor said he was nervous. “I felt like nobody should do this,” Boseman told “Nightline.” “I went online and looked at footage of him dancing, and I was like, ‘absolutely not… there’s no way.”’ But the film’s director Tate Taylor felt drawn to Boseman and believed he could become the “Godfather of Soul.” “When I found out that [Boseman] was from Anderson, South Carolina … something told me that he would have what was needed just in his DNA, in his veins,” to take on James Brown, Taylor said. So Boseman, who was not trained as a professional dancer, overcame his reservations and painstakingly transformed himself into the musical giant, nailing nearly every nuance and detail down to the swagger, the hair, the manicured nails and, of course, the signature dance moves.
Boseman studied hours of videos of Brown’s performances and interviews to learn his movements. “I was given footage of him, and so I just watched him in different moments, he changed over time,” he said. And he trained with a choreographer five to eight hours a day. “I think the hardest thing was the groove, you know, James Brown’s groove,” Boseman said. “Once you get that, you sort of understand the rest of it.” His attention to detail paid off in his last film, “42,” where Boseman earned critical acclaim for his role as Jackie Robinson. But, he said portraying James Brown was a different test of will. “If I finished at an easy day, I would say, ‘That would be the hardest scene we would do on another movie,’” he said. “It was crazy.” And once he got into the role, Boseman said he remained in character at all times. “He would show up as James Brown. It was amazing,” Taylor said. “The people around Chad would call him Mr. Brown. When he was picked up in the morning it was, ‘Mr. Brown in the car. Mr. Brown is on-set.’” Taylor said Boseman’s intense character study was the foundation for his stellar performance in “Get On Up.”…“He was working so hard, he would make a rare appearance out to dinner, and it would just be odd that Chad was there,” he said. (abcnews.go.com)
About Director Tate Taylor
Born and raised in Jackson Mississippi by his “broke single mother” and an African American domestic Carol Lee who he adored, a career in the film industry was not his original path. Taylor received a degree from Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) and scored a job with a Fortune 500 company… “And I hated it,” he tells me. It was a chance encounter with a film crew that inspired him to make the big move. “I was around when “The Firm” was shooting nearby and saw what was going on and just wanted to be a part of it. I saw a PA on the set with a walkie-talkie and decided I wanted to do that. I went off to New York and my first job was as a PA on the Nickelodeon channel on a show called “The Adventures of Pete and Pete” for $200 a week.” His first wide theatrical release “The Help” took nearly $220 million dollars worldwide.
Taylor pursued an acting career and made appearances in various TV shows and small roles in films including “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” and more recently a stand out performance as Satterfield in “Winter’s Bone” opposite Jennifer Lawrence who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance. He also shared…”I’m actually Matthew McConaughey’s butt double in A Time to Kill.” Although Taylor is now taking on responsibilities on the other side of the lense, you can still see Tate making ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ appearances in his films…After 15 years of pushing and struggling in LA and New York and finally getting the go ahead to take the helm of his good friend Kathryn Stockett’s story which was to become a feature film, Taylor returned to Mississippi to film “The Help”…With “Get on Up,” Taylor returns to the South and like The Help there is also a story unfolding against a backdrop of historical moments of significance. (kcet.org) A few of his other works include “Grace and Frankie,” “The Girl on the Train,” “Ma,” and most recently, “Ava.”