The Social Activist Side of James Brown You Won’t See In Get On Up

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 1 2014 7:03 PM

The Social Activist Side of James Brown You Won’t See In Get On Up

James Brown and Colin Powell
James Brown and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003.

Photo by Robert Trippett-Pool/Getty Images

The first big screen biopic of the life of James Brown, Get On Up, takes pains to remind you of his genius nearly every chance it gets, but as others have rightly noted, the film falls short when it comes to probing the more complicated sides of the singer. This is especially true in regards to Brown’s well-documented social activism, a significant and often contentious aspect of his character.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Director Tate Taylor and screenwriting partners (and siblings) Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth briefly touch on a few major events in Brown’s career as an activist, including his performances for the troops in Vietnam, his concert on the evening following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, and his recording of “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” But there was a lot more to Brown the Activist than that, and it’s a shame to leave so much of it out of the film. Below you’ll find a brief primer on the key political moments from Brown’s life that you won’t see in Get On Up.

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The “March Against Fear”

On June 6, 1966, James Meredith, the first black American accepted into the University of Mississippi, set out—solo—on a voting rights march leading from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi. The following day, Meredith was shot by a white supremacist near Hernando, Mississippi; while recovering in the hospital, many black activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael, descended upon Mississippi and picked up the march where he had left off. Brown was one of the many public figures to join them, performing at a rally later that month at the historically black Tougaloo College, hosted by comedian and activist Dick Gregory. This was Brown’s first instance of social and political activism in the public’s eye since becoming a star.

In his 1986 autobiography James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, the singer recalled the tensions within the Civil Rights Movement of the time:

Martin was trying to keep things going in a nonviolent way, and Stokely and them were starting to talk about Black Power—and upsetting a whole lot of people with it, too … Black Power meant different things to different people, see. To some people it meant black pride and black people owning businesses and having a voice in politics. That’s what it meant to me … I wanted to see people free, but I didn’t see any reason for us to kill each other.

Campaign With Hubert Humphrey

Soon after the “March Against Fear,” Brown catapulted himself further into the political spotlight, recording the stay-in-school anthem “Don’t Be a Drop-Out.” Brown took the first copy of the record to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The two built a campaign around the song, with Brown visiting schools and stressing the importance of education.

In 1968, Brown endorsed Humphrey for president, though the Black Panthers saw this as an “Uncle Tom” move. Judging Brown as a sellout, some of these critics changed Brown’s nickname to “Sold Brother No. 1.”

Endorsement of Nixon

Get On Up doesn’t spend much time on Brown during the ’70s, but that was a fascinating period in the singer’s biography, both musically and politically. Brown, who always marched to the beat of his own drum, outraged many black Americans with his endorsement of Richard Nixon for re-election in 1972, and he was among a handful of prominent black entertainers—including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Johnny Mathis—who were publicly criticized for it. (It wasn’t the first time he had shown some support for Nixon: In 1969, Brown performed “Say It Loud” at Nixon’s inaugural ball.)

As Jet reported in November of that year, Brown’s concert in Baltimore was picketed, and black militant groups planned to boycott his performances across the country. In his autobiography, Brown recalled the protests outside one of his performances at the Apollo after Nixon’s re-election: Signs read “James Brown—Nixon’s Clown” and “Get the Clown Out of Town.”

Brown supported Nixon based on their shared enthusiasm for individualist policies and the notion that hard work, and hard work alone, would be the key to success for black Americans. In a statement made in the wake of Dr. King’s death, Brown expounded upon his “up by your bootstraps” philosophy:

You know, in Augusta, Georgia I used to shine shoes on the steps of a radio station… I think we started at three cents, then we went to five and six. Never did get to a dime. But today, I own that radio station. You know what that is? That’s Black Power… It’s in knowing what you’re talking about, being ready.

Brown would speak of this philosophy frequently, and he even incorporated it into his music, as he did in the song “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself).” The singer admitted that his Nixon support “cost [him] in a lot of ways,” though he never regretted his decision.

Friend of Strom Thurmond

Perhaps the weirdest alliance Brown formed in his lifetime was with South Carolina senator and segregationist Strom Thurmond, infamous for his record-breaking filibuster in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (as well as for having a secret, illegitimate mixed-race child, revealed in the wake of his death in 2003). Brown held Thurmond in high regard, deeming him “great for our country”: “He’s like a grandfather to me,” he said.

On Black Identity

Despite his contentious relationship with the Black Panthers, some of Brown’s views did align with theirs. In a 1968 interview on The Mike Douglas Show alongside guest David Susskind, Brown openly discussed his stance on education and black identity. When Susskind referred to the “very misguided” black militants who advocated for separatism, Brown replied:

I believe that black people can talk to black people better than you can talk to black people. Don’t you think so? And so we have to have our own way of speaking. We got to have our own way. We want to have our own community. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

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