People always love to talk about how divided this country
is. Those are people who really have no knowledge
of the history of this country. When has this country ever NOT been divided? I mean like seriously. America is division personified.
Take the year 1968
when it seems the country was about to go up in flames in open warfare
right out in the streets.
There was the Vietnam War which was still going on
seemingly forever, and the Tet Offensive (look it up) did not make things any easier, college protests, the Paris May riots, the bloody Czech riots against Russian
oppression, the assassinations of both Martin
Luther King and Robert Kennedy,
urban riots in Chicago, Detroit, Newark and other cities.
And that’s just up to June. You don’t know what
you missed. You had to be there.
So when Jules Dassin’s
film Uptight first appeared in
late December 1968 it must have seemed
like a match to a tank of gasoline. The
Paramount film (and there’s no way a major Hollywood studio would ever produce
such a film such as this today) did create quite a controversy and notice in its time. Many of the reviews weren’t
kind to the film at all, but its stature and reputation have grown over the years
by those few who have seen it since it was practically unavailable for decades.
The film was conceived by Dassin who had the idea of remaking John Ford’s 1935 doom
leaden film The Informer , which is
set during the Irish Rebellion for
independence from the United Kingdom, during the early 1920s, in which a lowly, guilt ridden, Irish revolutionary betrays
his friend to the British, and he’s hunted down by other members of the IRA.
Interestingly, it was one of two black films which came
out at that time that were remakes of earlier films set during the Irish Rebellion.
The following year, in 1969, The Lost Man with Sidney Politer was released, which was a
remake of Sir Carol Reed’s 1947 British
film Odd Man Out, with James Mason, about an IRA activist who
pulls off a failed robbery and tries to escape Belfast before he is caught.
Dassin no doubt had an interest in the subject matter for
personal reasons. He had a stellar directing career in Hollywood, directing such
film noir classics as Night and City, Brute
Force and The Naked City, before he was “blacklisted” during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s for his leftist
beliefs, and refusing to “name names’” to the Congressional House of Un-American Activities and, as a result, was unable to
He relocated to France
and later Greece where he resumed his career, with the 1954 heist film
classic that defined the genre, Rififi, and other pictures, such as comedy caper film Topkapi and Never on Sunday.
Though he remained overseas for the rest of life, making Hollywood studio backed
films, he made only one film in the U.S. after his official “blacklisting” was lifted – and that film was Uptight.
Together with actress Ruby Dee, who co-wrote and appears in the film along with Raymond St. Jacques, Roscoe Lee Browne,
and Frank Silvera, the film stars actor
and activist Julian Mayfield in the lead role as traitor Tank, who was also film’s other co-writer.
The film was made during such a troubled and neurotic time in this
country that they even integrated into the storyline, the King assassination, which must have taken place while the film was
in production earlier that year.
Mayfield himself had a fascinating career. Starting out
as a stage actor, he became a novelist before becoming very active in the more militant
strain of the civil rights and black power movement. He later moved to Ghana where he worked for Kwame Nkrumah, while still writing.
He later moved to Spain
where he lived for several years, but returned to acting when Dassin got
him involved with Uptight. He later also became a lecturer at Cornell University, New York University,
University of Maryland, College Park and Howard University.
As for Uptight, while it may not be one of his best films.
it is certainly one of Dassin’s most interesting pictures, with some of his signature
touches in it – such as the final sequence where Mayfield is isolated against the vast, impersonal and
uncaring urban landscape, similar to the final images in the climatic chase sequence
in Dassin’s pioneering detective thriller The Naked City.
True, it does tend to get didactic at times with characters
giving speeches on the political and human condition instead of realistic dialogue,
but you can almost forgive Dassin and his co-writers. There was too much going
on at the time that had to be addressed.
And if what I said has peaked your interest and you’re curious
to see it (or want to see it again), and you live in the Chicago area, then you’re in luck. The Black Cinema House located at 6901
S. Dorchester will screen the film on Sunday,
February 16 starting at 4PM.
an urban planning consultant, writer, lecturer, and critic specializing in
architecture critic and radio host, and who selected the film, will be the host of the screening, which will be followed by a discussion afterward.
Seating is free, but seats are limited so you must RSVP right HERE.
And stay tuned because in March I will hosting yet
another screening myself of a film that I truly and deeply love