There are two stories being told in the documentary Get On Up. One is "The Triumph of Black America" as per the subtitle, and it charts the influence of African-American culture through movies, music and TV from cruelly suppressed beginnings to glorious, global pre-eminence.
It is one heck of a story, too, plotted here via nodes including Martin Luther King’s 1963 "I Have a Dream" address then onto Sammy Davis Jr, the magnificence of Sidney Poitier, Motown, Blaxploitation and the stupendous, ultimately blighted talent of Michael Jackson. Part two takes us on to hip-hop, fashion, sports and television: Get On Up talks not only to some fascinating people (Smokey Robinson; Lee Grant from In the Heat of the Night) but gets to some amazing places too – one interview with Stevie Wonder’s producer and early synth pioneer Robert Margouleff, listening back to the master tape of Living for the City in the very studio in which he recorded it, is simply majestic.
The other story in Get On Up is the story of its presenter, the actor David Harewood, who narrates as well as appearing on camera throughout. His is also a remarkable rise – from 1970s Birmingham, via a psychotic breakdown at 23, to fame and acclaim since his breakthrough role in hit American series Homeland. He has lived and worked in the US for the best part of a decade and the people and events, records and movies he describes here are evidently the substructure of his selfhood.
Harewood’s presence is both a strength and a weakness: when, for example, he is brought to tears by a song, it is a powerful reminder of how much music means to people’s lives, and hence of the achievement of Berry Gordy, Wonder and writers like Holland-Dozier-Holland (Eddie Holland even appears in the doc). But at other times, viewing the blossoming of African-American culture through the prism of how it affected the young Harewood (e.g. that MLK’s speech inspired him to get on stage and start performing) distracts from the wonders of the oratory, the song, the movie or the moment itself. Narrators can get in the way.
Whether or not you appreciate Harewood’s presence, however, you can’t argue with his thesis: that come 2023, African-American creativity influences most of what we see, hear and even think about ourselves. This series says it loud, and excels both as chronicle and celebration.