This time roughly three years ago, actor turned director Tate Taylor was in Atlanta, fielding questions on a press tour, awaiting the commercial and critical reception of his new movie The Help, based on Atlanta writer Kathryn Stockett’s novel about race relations in the South. It was only his second time directing a feature film and he had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about. The Help was a multiple Academy Award nominee and a box office smash.
He’s back now with his follow-up, the James Brown feature Get On Up, in theaters Friday. Taylor — born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi — was in town last week along with the star of the film, Chadwick Boseman, for the Atlanta premiere. Boseman, a Southerner born in Anderson, South Carolina, starred as Jackie Robinson in last year’s well-received baseball film 42 and is now bringing Georgia’s late Godfather of Soul to life.
Born in South Carolina, Brown relocated with his parents to Augusta at the age of five. He began his career singing gospel a short time later before changing the musical landscape with his distinct sounds. Get On Up charts Brown’s often troubled personal and professional life — and doesn’t skimp on the music.
It took some convincing for Boseman to play Brown, however. “I was hesitant; I was adamant that I was not doing it,” he says. “[Tate] had heard me talking about it. There was no reason. I felt like I was finally winning. If you’re winning why are you shooting a three pointer? [I told myself] don’t take a chance like that. I got to the point where I wouldn’t even read the script.”
Yet Taylor changed his mind. “I just said this is a story of people, men we known, where we are from,” Taylor said. “I said Chad, look — all things have to work out. If one of us feels it doesn’t, walk away. We didn’t make this movie just to make it. We get one chance. Everything had to work out perfect. We had a lot of trust and communication. We took it slowly, step by step.”
After he passed away in 2006, Brown had memorial services in both the James Brown Arena in Augusta and at New York’s Apollo Theater. The cast visited the Apollo a few weeks ago for a premiere. “You can’t beat premiering a movie at the Apollo — the very stage where it all started, where [James] took risks like recording Live at the Apollo,” says Taylor. “People said he was nuts. He paid for it himself. He changed history; it began a series of events where he kept changing history. It was so fitting that he was laid to rest there for his adoring fans to come visit him. It just felt full circle and we completed the circle by premiering in Augusta. It is very much filled with nostalgia; an honor.”
Boseman had visited the Apollo several times before making this movie, never dreaming he’d one day be back for his own premiere. The red carpet screening was a weird experience for him, especially seeing a picture of James Brown and thinking of all the history that had come before.
Some of the same players from The Help are back in the film. Viola Davis plays Brown’s mother and Octavia Spencer is his Aunt Honey. (Both women were nominated for Oscars for their work in The Help; Spencer won.) Yet the major figure outside of Brown in Get On Up is Bobby Byrd (played by Nelsan Ellis of True Blood), credited for discovering the singer and becoming one of the most important people in his life.
“In James Brown’s life and in the film, Bobby Byrd is a rock,” says Taylor. “He is the glue that lets his best friend and partner go way off the rails at times but is tethered to him and yanks him right back. Nelsan Ellis did a phenomenal job portraying this man. I showed it to the Brown family and they said ‘Nelsan is Uncle Bob.’ They were very emotional about it. It was very important for us to have that element in the film. He was the one constant in James’ life.”
Both the director and star have their own theories as to why Brown became the legend he was. “The way I sum it up best: his music was the first music to make people dance or move even when they didn’t know what they were doing,” says Taylor. “James Brown, when played anywhere, people’s feet begin to move involuntary. We’ve seen the film at screenings in various cities and I like to stand in the back. All races, all ages, all sexes, all sexualities, everyone just starts moving like bobbleheads in their seats and they don’t know they are doing it.”
In Boseman’s opinion, confidence and swagger were a vital part of who Brown was. “He makes everyone feel like they are part of something,” he says. “I think he has that appeal, no matter what he is wearing, no matter what his hair is like, or what he is saying. At times he may say something that sounds crazy, but when you go back and think of it, it has a lot of wisdom. He was sure about himself. Sometimes he was ahead of his time; sometimes he was right in the time; others times the time might have passed. But he was still confident.”