Get On Up is an inspired James Brown biopic

Tate Taylor’s subtly extraordinary movie throws off flashes of insight

But it's the job of white people to be students of the history of black America — we're doomed if we're not. And to that end, Taylor makes some extremely smart choices in Get On Up: Most notably, he stops the movie's action now and then to have Boseman address the camera directly, always a risky proposition. In the first of these bracingly straightforward missives, Brown tells us, "You can bet your bottom dollar that every record you've got has a piece of me on it" — a not-so-veiled reference to his enduring influence and to the number of times he's been sampled, illegally or otherwise. It's a strange and brilliant approach. Brown's message, channeled through Boseman, is that we — all of us, black people and white ones — made him what he is today, what he continues to be from beyond the grave.

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Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart  and Chadwick Boseman as James Brown
D Stevens
Dan Aykroyd as Ben Bart and Chadwick Boseman as James Brown

These asides are at times accusatory and scolding. But mostly, they're conspiratorial, an acknowledgment, from a guy who wasn't exactly humble, that he needed us to love him. Boseman has the moves to play James Brown. His bones and his muscles, like Brown's, seem to be articulated in a way that defies God's plan for how our bodies should move. Brown's shimmying, shimmering mashed potato, his daring splits, his delightful pantomime, carefully honed over the years, of falling to his knees in exhaustion, only to be brought back to life by the ministrations of a humble assistant — usually Byrd — rushing forward to drape a royal cloak around his shoulders: Boseman and Taylor re-create it all for us, but they also show us how much all of it meant, to the culture at large and to Brown himself. Please, please, please. Through sheer force of will, James Brown made sure the answer was Yes.

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