Get On Up, the highly anticipated biopic of legendary entertainer James Brown, opened in theaters over the weekend. While the life’s work of the “Godfather of Soul” should be front and center, all many fans and critics seem to be talking about is the fact that not one black writer, director or producer (save for Spike Lee briefly) was involved in the production of the movie.
Screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard declares it a complete whitewash. “There are over fifty black iconic biopics and black-themed movies in development in Hollywood, including multiple Richard Pryor projects, five Martin Luther King projects, multiple Marvin Gaye projects, and civil rights projects, and only one or two have an African American writer. Our entire history has been given over to white writers,” states Howard in a piece for HuffPost Black Voices. Howard goes on to argue that the focus of the film is on singing and dancing, and that producers completely ignore more complicated aspects of Brown’s life, including his commitment to civil rights.
Brown, while phenomenal at both, wasn’t just a singer and dancer. Any serious fan knows his decree in “I’m Black and I’m Proud” defined and uplifted an entire generation. The significance would not have been overlooked or underplayed if blacks had participated in the making of the movie, Howard says. “When we are kept out of the room, that is what you end up with, a pale Wikified imitation of what a great man was,” he adds.
The fact that Get On Up did not have any black writers, directors or producers at the helm during production does not mean it is a poor movie, but Howard makes a good point about the absence of diversity on set leading to less than accurate storytelling, and how it perpetuates stereotype while diminishing the image of an African American icon. After all, as Howard suggests, would women be excluded in the making of a movie about Gloria Steinem’s life? All of this, of course, raises yet another question that was addressed last week at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Boston: Who’s in charge of checking and correcting stereotypical African American images in the media? For years this responsibility largely belonged to the black press.
“We see ourselves as being gatecrashers, doing battle against the gatekeepers,” said Richard Muhammad, editor-in-chief of The Final Call, a national newspaper and website founded and published by the Nation of Islam. “As black journalists, we have a responsibility for bringing a balance to what consumers see in the mainstream media because the mainstream media has never been fair, never been balanced.”
Muhammad was joined on the NABJ panel by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans; National Newspaper Publisher’s Association Chairman and Arizona Informant C0-Publisher Cloves Campbell; Reggie Thomas, Director of Advertising for the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine; and Reginald Jackson, president and founder of Olaleye Communications Inc. The panelists agreed that consumers continue to be bombarded with negative and stereotypical images of black people, hyperfocused on crime, buffoonery and/or entertainment. But they struggled with how to now combat negative images in an increasingly digital media landscape and disagreed about whether the increase in black characters in prime time television shows is actually positive progress.
While the black press has traditionally recorded positive black history every week, it now struggles to offer a counter-balance to more pervasive negative images in mainstream media. “As traditional media becomes increasingly irrelevant, and digital becomes more prominent, we need to figure out a better way to get out more positive messages and to reach young people,” said Campbell of the Arizona Information and NNPA, a consortium of 200 black-owned newspapers. The NNPA, Campbell added, is in the process of developing digital initiatives to do just that. “We have to move away from print and more toward digital,” Campbell added. “We have to start training our own folks. If we show young people these more positive images on multiple platforms, then they will begin consuming that positive content more than the negative that is overly available in mainstream media.”
Muhammad, editor of The Final Call, said the black press needs more support from black consumers to counteract negative media images. “We need to be more conscious about what we do with our dollars,” he said. “If businesses advertise on Sean Hannity’s show, for example, then we can’t buy those products.” Muhammad also urged consumers to subscribe to black newspapers, including his, which has a digital edition.
Young, black men and boys, especially, rarely appear in daily national and local American news media. But, when they do, the tendency is to present them as murderers, thieves, robbers, rapists, adulterers, or victims of crime, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reported in 2011. A year later the Pew Research Center found that blacks are over-represented in crime and sports stories. “Pew reported that on television, 97 percent of the stories involving African-American males offered visual references, including negative portrayals, without direct discussion of their ethnicity or racial identity,” Robert Hill writes in the Nov. 23 edition of the Post-Gazette. “In print, where the number of photographs is limited, the proportion — 81 percent — was still enormous.”
Media images that people consume of blacks over-emphasize criminality and dysfunction, said NPR’s Deggans. “Blacks and whites use drugs at the same level, but blacks more likely go to jail for it. We have a media hyper-focused on crime, hyper-focused on law enforcement, which in turn is hyper-focused on our communities, black men and boys especially,” he added.
Sometimes black journalists, themselves, are the problem, said Deggans, who wrote the book “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation. He pointed to recent commentary by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith regarding domestic violence that perpetuates negative imagery and behavior. ESPN suspended Smith for one week after he seemingly suggested some women provoke men’s violent behavior. “Often the problem in sports media is with people trying to justify bad behavior,” said Deggans. “Sometimes we have to challenge our own journalists, our own people, to be better on that score.” In terms of calling out media organizations for perpetuating stereotype, Deggans praised Black Twitter, an active online community that pays close attention to African American issues and is adept at bringing about a wide range of social change. The social media force not only got advertisers to abandon celebrity chef Paula Deen after learning she used the n-word, but successfully took USA Today to task for calling “The Best Man Holiday” a race themed film.
Deggans, however, caused a bit of a stir when he praised Olivia Pope, a character Kerry Washington portrays in the ABC hit, Scandal. “She’s a winner because she breaks the mold of the typical supporting roles we’re used to seeing on television,” Deggans said to loud retorts from fellow panelists and some audience members.
“The top five TV shows that blacks watch include Real Housewives of Atlanta, Real Husbands of Hollywood, and Love and Hip Hop Atlanta. But the number one show is Scandal,” responded Campbell, citing Nielsen’s 2013 African American Consumer Report. “These are some of the most-watched shows; Those are images that they are putting out there and using to make money off of us. We have to take a look at ourselves. Sometimes we’re the culprit.”
Thomas of Crisis Magazine agreed. “We have to stop supporting and succumbing to that,” Thomas said.
It is yet to be seen whether black consumers will support Get On Up. It brought in $14 million over the weekend, coming in third place behind sci-fi comedy Guardians of the Galaxy ($94 million) and action thriller Lucy ($18.2 million).
Watch the trailer for Get On Up: