David Harewood may be British, but on screen he feels like an old-school Hollywood star. The low timbre of his voice and his broad-shouldered physique somehow evoke the leading men of days gone by, and even without his knack for American accents it would be easy to buy him on screen alongside one of his heroes, Sidney Poitier. But that is not an accident and, as is the case for many Black Britons, Harewood has a profound connection to Black American culture, which shaped him as both a performer and a man.
Harewood’s two-part programme Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America sees him travel across the US to meet many of the icons he holds dearest. Sadly, Poitier died last year, but many others at the forefront of Black American creativity sit down with Harewood and share just what it took for them to succeed. He learns to moonwalk from Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel (the brains behind Michael Jackson’s signature move). He spends time with John Amos, who recalls playing Kunta Kinte in Roots with his signature velvety baritone. And he giggles with the first Black Bond Girl, Gloria Hendry, as she recalls snogging Roger Moore in Live and Let Die.
It’s all very sweet, and the immediate bonds he forms with his fellow Black artists seem genuine – but over the course of the documentary the tone becomes slightly frustrating. Harewood seems so determined to celebrate these important figures that he doesn’t interrogate them in any significant way. While we can all admit that Michael Jackson was an incredible talent, looking at the influence such a figure had on the Black diaspora and coming away with a love of moonwalking and fond memories of watching the Thriller video is a puzzlingly shallow take on an incredibly complex – and frequently disturbing – legacy.
When it comes to Poitier, the burden of representation he had was immense. Still, the programme never touches on how that shaped him as an actor and a person, or his significance as a role model for a plethora of budding Black actors. At one point, a clip of Poitier appears on screen criticising a journalist for his line of questioning, saying: “You ask me questions that continually fall within the negro-ness of my life. I am an artist, a man, an American, a contemporary. I’m an awful lot of things.”
His scathing assessment of how he was viewed has lost none of its power, though his words also critique the documentary itself, which is content to showcase Black triumph but not get stuck into the twists in the road that have made it possible. Even its title speaks to a bland but jolly assessment of a very thorny history. James Brown, the artist behind the eponymous Get On Up, was anything but a simple man or an unadulterated hero. Using his most famous lyrics alongside “The Triumph of Black America” points to the show’s determinedly rose-tinted glasses.
Admittedly, even if the “feelgood” lens is disingenuous, it is hard not to feel really damn good listening to Harewood’s grand narration reminding us of some wonderful moments from the lives of Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder. Interviews from musicians Nile Rodgers and Monie Love are delightful, and cut to the heart of what has made these figures and their art endure.
Sadly, others seem content to state the obvious. This reaches its nadir with Robert Margouleff’s slow, dull retelling of meeting Stevie Wonder. Margouleff recounts Wonder playing the synthesiser, then the piano, and eventually saying “let’s record!” with an almost impressive lack of poetry.
But while the show lacks intricacy, Harewood sincerely connects to all these stories, and his enthusiasm proves infectious. For those who aren’t quite as tuned into Black American culture as Harewood, he has curated a brilliant list of songs and films to introduce them to some of its greats. But for those already aware of who these figures are and the impact they have had, there is little more here than a serviceable recapping of established narratives. These icons of Black American Culture have pushed the boundaries of what was possible, innovating and subverting expectations through their work. While spending time with them is never a chore, it seems a shame that the documentary’s spirit isn’t similarly rebellious.
• Get On Up is on BBC Two on 30 March at 9pm, then on the BBC iPlayer