Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America

Interview with David Harewood on BBC Two's Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America

Witnessing first-hand the influence black America has had on the world, David reveals the game-changing moments and seismic turning points when African American creatives transformed popular culture



Q&A with David Harewood

Can you tell us what the series is about?

The series is a personal journey through African American culture during my lifetime. Starting in the 1960s the decade I was born, and those significant moments that have affected me and really shifted the dial in terms of how Black culture has been perceived and had a global impact.

Why did you want to make Get On Up, and why do you think the subject is important?

It was when we’d finished the series and I saw it in its entirety that I realised that a lot of these cultural moments weren’t just special to me but to other people too. When I think about that it’s staggering to think, how starting with Motown, here we are 60 years later with a culture that is still evolving. Today when popular culture exists on a global scale is more of a conversation, African American culture doesn’t now exist in isolation - there’s a dialogue going on with artists from around the world from Afrobeats in Nigeria to Grime and Drill in the UK.

How did Black American culture shape your life when you were growing up? Who inspired you and who were your idols?

Sidney Poitier resonated with me, he was one of the first actors I was inspired by and Martin Luther King Jr and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech certainly had an impact on me.

Growing up in Britain there weren’t that many black inspirational figures to look up to, most of them were American – whether it was the stylish fly guy Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch or the Chief of Police in 70s’ cop shows, there was always one black character and they had authority or personality and weight. Growing up there were no characters like that in the UK, so I guess I got used to watching these American shows and then when Shaft came out, seeing black characters being sexy and dangerous - it was a revolution, we’d never seen anything like it. In America, Blaxploitation had a real impact in terms of style and attitude, and it was unapologetic about being black.

The series pinpoints the significant moments when Black creatives changed the status quo through film and music - are there any of those cultural moments you wish you’d been a part of?

I would love to have been walking down 5th Avenue in 1970’s New York and being a part of the crowd who sat down and watched Shaft for the first time or hearing the astonishment in the audience when Sidney Poitier playing Virgil Tibbs a Black detective in ‘In The Heat of the Night’ slaps a white character – nobody had seen anything like it before - there were literal gasps in the audience.

What was it like meeting some of the legendary figures and contributors in the series?

It was absolutely magical meeting John Amos who played Kunta Kinte in Roots. I genuinely remember as a six-year-old kid crying when they chopped Kunta Kinte’s leg off, going to bed and being really upset and it really being impactful. So, to meet John and telling him how much he inspired me and then him telling me I had to inspire the next generation of Black actors, that was really moving.

Do you have any other highlights from making the series?

Hearing from all the contributors was genuinely fascinating because they could contextualise these incredible moments. From being in the studio with Stevie Wonder’s recording engineer Robert Margouleff, talking to Jamie Hector from ‘The Wire’ about the impact of that series; hearing from Gloria Hendry about her experience in Blaxploitation movies and as a Bond girl to chatting to Shalamar’s Jeffrey Daniel who I’d watched for the first time on Top of the Pops doing the Moonwalk and thinking “what is he doing?!” I’d never seen anything like it – so again sitting down and being in the room, hearing the contributors talk about their experiences has just been wonderful. It is one of those series I want to keep putting on and watching with a smile on my face.

Also, the Motown story - It was the first time we’d seen these stylish Black men and women and that was particularly done to counter the negative image of black America being undesirable and ugly. White kids listened to Motown, and that was significant outside music, it became important politically because white people who previously would never consider playing black music were listening to Motown, it really broke down the boundaries.

Do you think Black American culture has as much influence on British culture now as it did in the 60s, 70s and 80s - or are there enough home-grown role models in the UK now that people look less to the US?

I’d say it’s more of a global conversation now. Black culture has influenced the world so much, that now the world is fusing with African American culture and vice versa, so you have Afro Beats and Black British rappers who have taken the form and very much made it their own.

Black American culture will always influence the world because it’s much more powerful, much more evolved and there’s more money so in terms of movie making, image making it’s the home of the image, it all stems from America – it will always be the engine of the cultural driver, but I think it’s more of a conversation now and while you’ll still have great black break out artists in pop music or other genres, you’ll also get that in a global sense.

After a decade in the US, does British culture look and feel different to you?

Yes, I would say so, we now have a generation of creatives coming through which is really exciting, filmmakers, fashion designers, actors and directors who are finally getting the opportunity to show their work. I think it’s a very exciting place to be and one would hope the ground is fertile enough to allow them to grow and there’s an industry here that allows them to grow. Black British actors who are coming up now, don’t have to go to America - they can go out of choice, unlike my generation who had to because there was no work here. I would say there’s a much more viable Black British culture now, one that’s been allowed to grow, and one hopes that it’s allowed to flourish.

What would you like audiences to look out for in the series, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?

The significance of these moments. Rather than just thinking that was a really good song, but to look at it in the pantheon of those cultural moments and the continuation of the black cultural story – you really begin to see how important these moments were for black culture and how much it inspired the world and still does.

I hope people will see the totality of the African American cultural significance and how much it has inspired and continues to inspire the world.

And that’s not by accident. I do think black creativity which has long fought to break out of the box that people have put it in, is now seen as global. It’s really exciting and hopefully we can continue to make inroads into making black culture mainstream culture and not pigeonholed.


Since childhood, British actor David Harewood has loved America and American Culture: the particular energy of its music, movies and performers. A decade ago, David made it big in the US when he starred in the hit series Homeland. Now he is on a journey to find out more about the African Americans who shaped his life and changed the world.

Witnessing first-hand the influence black America has had on the world, David reveals the game-changing moments and seismic turning points when African American creatives transformed popular culture, starting in the 1960s, the decade of his birth, and taking us through to the present day.

Meeting pioneering musicians, actors, filmmakers and choreographers and hearing from writers and commentators, David goes to the heart of what makes African American culture so distinct, and tells us the story of how it won over the world.

Contributors include Smokey Robinson, Nile Rodgers, choreographer Jeffrey Daniel, actor Jon Amos who played Kunta Kinte in the ground-breaking TV series Roots, rapper Monie Love, director & producer Allen Hughes (The Hughes Brothers) and Lee Grant, Sydney Poitier’s co-star in the classic thriller In The Heat of the Night.

A Milk and Honey production. The Director is Geoff Small and the Executive Producer is Lucy Pilkington for Milk and Honey. The Commissioning Editor is David Upshal.

Get On Up: The Triumph of Black America - Thursday 30 March 2023 on BBC Two.

Source BBC TWO

March 28, 2023 3:00am ET by BBC TWO  


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