Jill Scott and the Spirit of James Brown


Get On Up is an intimate portrait of James Brown as a captivating performer and a troubled young man. The film explores Brown’s public persona and relates it back to his early experiences of abandonment and physical and emotional abuse. Unlike many three-act structured biopics, director Tate Taylor (The Help) puts forward a collection of splintered flashbacks, while weaving moments in between that would eventually make up Brown’s worth as a man and an impassioned performer.

Coming out this Friday, Get On Up stars Chadwick Boseman as Brown, and features a supporting cast of Viola Davis, True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, and Dan Aykroyd. Soul singer Jill Scott plays Brown’s second wife, Deedee Jenkins. Shaking and grooving at one of Brown’s early performance, Scott is a lively presence as Deedee. Her relationship with Brown transitions from a transfixed fan to a fierce, volatile love—a love so strong that Scott admits she’s still struggling with letting James Brown go.

NIKI CRUZ:  There are so many surprises in this portrait aside from James Brown as an entertainer. What did you take away from Get On Up?

JILL SCOTT: I took away from the film that he’s just a man, and he’s not just some entertainer. He’s not just there to make us shake our butts or make us fall in love. He had his own crosses to bear, and he did it, and he faced himself, and found the light in every single darkness that was down there. He just kept finding the light. As you get older, it gets harder, so I understood the drug use, but for so long you’re able to fight off those demons and keep on finding light. That’s just so impressive. Not only as an entertainer, but as a human being. I learned a lot about the guy.

CRUZ: I knew James Brown as a fan. I knew him as he was on stage, but there’s this whole other layer to the film that gets inside who he really was as a man, and his struggles. It’s incredibly raw.

SCOTT: I wasn’t prepared. I don’t know if people are going to be prepared for how deep he is, and how deep his life is. Here’s the thing; you can’t be that deep by chance. You can’t be that powerful and potent without having some grey in your life. Maybe even some mud. His tenacity for living and his belief in himself just kept propelling him.

CRUZ: In the film we see so many important moments that launch James Brown into the next stage of his career as a musician. Are there any moments that you can think of as a singer that brought you to your next step as a performer?

SCOTT: It takes me a long time or a hot second to write a song that I think will be impactful to people. It takes me time to rehearse with my band and to allow myself to be heard in front of 70,000 people, or a million people, or to be full of joy. I have to use my spirit to get what I do across. Deedee is actually the first character that got in my spirit. I miss James. I miss him bad. I’m having a hard time getting rid of her. [Sighs]

CRUZ: Did you speak with Deedee before you filmed?

SCOTT: No. I was afraid to speak with her. I was afraid if I spoke to her that I would start to judge. I didn’t want to hear any judgment in her voice. I didn’t want to hear her and somewhere in me judge her or him, so I didn’t talk to her. I talked to her grandson and he brought me pictures. I looked her up on YouTube. There’s a clip of her on The Newlywed Game with James and I just watched her and how still she appeared to be. Her diction was really sweet. The one thing that made all the difference in the world to me, is that I was told through [the director] Tate and Jason, her grandson, that she’s still in love with James.

CRUZ: After all that time?

SCOTT:  When people say “abuse” people get [full of] righteous indignation. [But] this is a different era and that’s a different woman. The woman loved James, and was in awe of him. I don’t know about the first time James laid hands on her, but I felt like I was inside that day in the film, and all you could do is cry. He’s going to come back later, he’s going to be sorry, and they’re going to make love—it’s the habit. It’s what he saw. 

CRUZ: It’s the mirror.

SCOTT: Right. He’s his dad. It’s his dad and his mom all over again. She’s softer because it’s a different era. She has furs, diamonds, and a house, and all of the fanciness of being in a relationship that has its rough patches. Everything is complicated. I’m going to meet her on Monday.

CRUZ: Wow. How do you think that experience will be?

SCOTT: I look forward to it because I need to let her go. She’s a real person that’s alive and well, and I’m looking forward to that, because it’s time to move on. I don’t want to miss James like this. I’m happy to see Chadwick, “Cool. He’s a great actor and much respect. Kudos to you for real. To be that high all the time inside of a character—that’s fantastic.” But I’d rather see James! [laughs] I miss my husband. I’ve never been married to James Brown, I’ve never met James Brown, but he’s stuck in my system and it’s very odd, and I want it to go.

CRUZ: Do you want to let all of her go? Is there any piece of her that you can take from her?

SCOTT: [long pause] She loved James without limit and I think that’s the goal to a certain degree. I’m never going to stay with someone who would physically harm me—ever. It’s not in my DNA, I’ve seen too much and I know better, but I do want to love wholeheartedly and thoroughly and be brazen about it. I think that’s what she was. She was in awe and I’d like to feel that way, and I would like someone to feel that way about me too. I’ll take that from Deedee. From James, I will take conviction, passion, rehearsal. That level of practice and preparedness—I’m about that life. 

CRUZ:  Get On Up deals with some of the issues that we’ve swept under the rug in African American history. What do you think the film adds to the conversation of race?

SCOTT: I don’t know that it does. I know James Brown is a black man and he was definitely proud to be that, but he feels more universal than he feels compartmentalized into a color.

CRUZ: He had a lot to overcome within the music business to gain that audience. 

SCOTT: That’s personal tenacity. That’s personal conviction and a pride in oneself that just can’t be denied. That’s what he had. He had no choice but to love his people—even though he’s seen so much ugly, in the darkest places he kept on finding the light. He’s definitely someone to look up to. I hope that this movie shows people that our heroes are flawed. None of us are Superman. All the people that we look up to have some level of grief and struggle; even the great James Brown. I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I saw. I wasn’t prepared to feel that way. You read the script and you talk about it a little bit, and you keep it moving, but when I went to see it we were quiet for about an hour and a half. There wasn’t anything to say. It was being privy to someone’s soul and I didn’t expect that. [sighs] I cannot believe I miss him this much. This is crazy. Oh, I can’t wait until this is over! [laughs

CRUZ: I was so struck by how Tate Taylor set up that scene when the abuse happens. It’s an intimate moment but it’s set up at a distance, so you’re not seeing that aggression up close. Then to juxtapose that with the scene where she does challenge him and steps up to him was very clever. Were those scenes discussed beforehand?

SCOTT: Yes. Initially he didn’t know where he was going to place the scene—before or after. He felt that placing the scene after shows that they were still together and they still had a fire between each other. We discussed the approach. Initially it was giddy because she was a new wife but then I realized she wasn’t a new wife. We figured it out as we go. He didn’t tell me that the abuse happened beforehand and it wasn’t like that in the script. I’m kind of glad the way he set it up to show that they have that ass whooping and that passion.

CRUZ: As for your music, your collaboration on “Divinity” just dropped about a week ago, and you’ve been hinting at a new album for a bit—what’s next for you? 

SCOTT: Oh, yeah, everybody knows about this song! We were just having fun being free, but I’m still working on the album. I wrote a lot of songs but I have something to say so I’m not done. I don’t even know what it is, but I’m just going to continue on with the spirit work. As a writer, you know, there’s moments where you’re just writing.

CRUZ: It’s coming through you.

SCOTT: Right, and then there’s moments where you’re laboring and you’re working on it. For the music that I will have to sing “for the rest of my life,” I’d like it to be spirit hand instead of me forcing eight bars, or, “Let me write the hook that everyone will sing along to.” I’ll wait. If the words aren’t powerful or interesting, there’s nothing to say.