Like Dassin’s 1950 noir classic Night and the City, Uptight is shot predominantly at night, with oddly titled camera angles and bright, glaring colours, ironically organised around the shades of red, white, and blue. For Roger Ebert, such stylistic flourishes were “too impressionistic and arty for the subject matter,” rendering even location shots “stylized” when they should appear “realistic”: “at night […] the backgrounds take on a dreamlike quality.” Yet it’s my contention that this heightened visual style is a deliberate attempt on Dassin’s part to foreground his uneasiness with his role as a White director: to adopt his own metaphor, showing the window frame rather than pretending to transparent access through the windowpane.
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Cleveland, Ohio, July 1968: location shooting wraps up on a new Paramount Pictures production, Uptight, depicting an armed Black Power group. During shooting, Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated. A few weeks later, a Black Nationalist group who provided security during shooting get into a firefight with the cops, setting off several days of rioting. Other members of the film crew are FBI informants, providing updates to a concerned J. Edgar Hoover. Reality seems to intrude on the world of filmic illusion at every point.1 According to Hollywood dream factory conventions, this is not supposed to happen, and it can seem astonishing that Uptight was made at all. Commercially unsuccessful and critically snubbed, Uptight has remained a forgotten chapter in the history of Black American cinema. Yet, precisely because of this, the film serves as a useful way into a vexed question: can a genuine Black cinema exist within the Hollywood system?
Uptight’s immediate inspiration lies in an unlikely source. Adapting John Ford’s The Informer (1935), in which a former IRA member betrays his best friend to the authorities, it relocates the story to America’s inner city, while sticking fairly closely to The Informer’s narrative outline. Members of a militant Black Power organisation known only as the “Committee” arrive at the boxy apartment of Tank (Julian Mayfield). Led by Tank’s childhood friend Johnny (Max Julien), they’ve come to pick him up for a raid on arms depot, but the alcoholic Tank is in no fit state to join. Johnny is wounded during the raid and goes into hiding: Tank tips off the cops, and Johnny is shot and killed. In a drunken dark night of the soul, Tank stumbles from encounter to encounter until eventually brought to a reckoning with the Committee. Resigning himself to his encounter with his executioners, the film closes on the image of his falling body. The awkwardness of transposing Ford’s film to contemporaneous Black America has been criticised by writers varying from Roger Ebert to Frank Wilderson. At the same time, Uptight attempts historical specificity, opening with footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral in Memphis, which roots the film in extremely recent, real-world events.
Uptight was financed by a White studio, with a White director, Jules Dassin, and – as per Hollywood hiring practices – a primarily White crew, yet with a largely Black cast. Likewise, after an unsatisfactory first draft, Dassin collaborated on the screenplay with Julian Mayfield and Ruby Dee, who also star as Tank and his partner Laurie. Both Dassin and Mayfield were returning from exile: Dassin, in Greece and France following his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, Mayfield in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana following his involvement with pre-Black Panther self-defense advocate Robert F. Williams in Monroe County. Dee, meanwhile, had sprung to fame with her astonishing performance as the put-upon Ruth Younger in the stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and, as a highly visible civil rights activist, had worked with CORE, the NAACP, and the SCLC. In his introduction to the film for the Criterion Channel, director Barry Jenkins suggests that Dee might even have directed it at a different stage in her career. But the question is not so much Dee’s confidence in directing a film, but that for her to have directed would have been structurally unthinkable. It was not until 1991 that Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust became the first full-length film directed by a Black woman to receive general theatrical release in the United States. In order for a film about Black radicalism to be made at all, a White director was still required to serve as mediating figure.
In 1978, Thomas Cripps defined a “Black film” as one which had a “Black producer, writer and director, or Black performers.” (Cripps, 3) So much seems to be implied in that “or.” Likewise, as Michael T. Martin and David Wall noted in 2015, that we should even have to define “a Black film” as opposed to simply “a film” lies in the fact that the medium of film per se became classed as White (Wall and Martin, 5-6). Wall and Martin suggest that we adopt the category of the “black-oriented film” as a means out of this impasse. This does and does not help us to approach Uptight. Dassin expressed scepticism that “any white man is [capable] of understanding the Black man or putting himself in the Black’s position,” describing himself as “on the outside looking in” (quoted in Sieving, 128). This sense of distance or alienation is inscribed into the film’s visual style. Like Dassin’s 1950 noir classic Night and the City, Uptight is shot predominantly at night, with oddly titled camera angles and bright, glaring colours, ironically organised around the shades of red, white and blue. For Roger Ebert, such stylistic flourishes were “too impressionistic and arty for the subject matter,” rendering even location shots “stylized” when they should appear “realistic”: “at night […] the backgrounds take on a dreamlike quality.” Yet it’s my contention that this heightened visual style is a deliberate attempt on Dassin’s part to foreground his uneasiness with his role as a White director: to adopt his own metaphor, showing the window frame rather than pretending to transparent access through the windowpane.
Ebert’s reservations may derive from the signals given off by the opening sequence. Shot in Memphis midway through the film’s production, the footage of King’s funeral appears the epitome of a realist, even documentary approach. Yet even here, Dassin draws attention to the mediating role of the filmic frame. Beginning with close-ups of smaller groups of mourners, Dassin’s camera pulls back to reveal the true size of the crowd, at the same time drawing attention to the location of the camera within it. This attention to framing is reinforced in the cut from the “real life” footage to the fictive body of the film, as the images we have just seen “unmediated” appear on TV screens broadcasting to viewers in Cleveland.
Attention is once more drawn to visual framing later in the film when the drunken, guilt-ridden Tank is surrounded by a party of drunken Whites in evening wear who laughingly demand to know how and when “the Black revolution” will occur. Tank obliges with a bitterly ironical speech, shot in a fairground hall of mirrors that render both him and the Whites grotesque caricatures or torture victims, all distended necks and gigantised mouths.
The distortion of these mirror shots is pre-cinematic, relying on the funhouse visuals rather than editing or camera movement. Moving outside the established grammar of film naturalism, it emphasizes meditation, performance and illusionism in a film that frequently troubles the boundaries of its ostensibly “realist” mode. As Cedric Robinson notes, in early twentieth-century North America, “film was being deployed deliberately to signify and inculcate a new racial order into the imaginations of […] millions,” “teaching […] acceptable moral values, social behaviors, and the racial rewards of whiteness,” and “providing the historical pedagogy for […] millions” (Robinson, 237). Hollywood films – most notably, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) – enshrined racist stereotypes as recognisable, shared icons. In a willed suspension of disbelief, White actors in blackface performed roles drawn from minstrel shows and the racist bilge of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, an illusion that then became confused with reality, participating in the process that justified and perpetuated the anti-black violence of lynching, segregation, and police brutality. “Reality” was thus understood in and through filmic terms that deployed new modes of technology – from Griffith’s famous editing innovations to the blend of live action and animation in Disney’s Song of the South (1946) – to give new life to old stereotypes. By returning to pre-cinematic techniques and turning “reality” into caricature (rather than caricature into reality), Dassin reverses this process. The tension Ebert perceives in the film – between the realist mode thought necessary to depict political detail and the “arty” stylisation that draws attention to filmic illusion – thus reveals not only the conflicted nature of a film overdetermined by the circumstances of its production, but of the system of Hollywood filmmaking as a whole, as a key instrument in the arsenal of White supremacy. Working both within and against this system, Uptight deploys both realist narrative and grotesque exaggeration as funhouse mirrors of each other, combining to offer at least the beginnings of an analysis.
As important as Dassin’s visual flair are the performances by his fellow screenwriters. Mayfield is the figure we see on-screen for much of the film’s running time, often in medium shot or close-up. From his near-permanently twitching, sweat-drenched face to his feeble attempts at defiance and the dejected drooping of his shoulders, Mayfield’s Tank provides an extraordinarily effective embodiment of defeat. As Mayfield put it in the Ebony feature on the film: “I want every kid who sees me to say, ‘I never want to be like him.’”
Fired from his job at the steel mill for standing up to a “company fink,” Tank’s sense of identity has been completely destroyed. Beyond his relationship with Johnny or Laurie, the film suggests that Tank’s primary love object is the factory itself. “Oh you noisy, beautiful bastard,” Tank exclaims while drunkenly gazing at his former workplace: “I gave you twenty years and you don’t remember nothing.… Twenty lovely, beautiful years and you don’t remember! […] I miss you.… I miss you, baby.” Incapable of returning love, the factory is an abstraction from the human forces that powered it. Operating even at night, the mill is seen first in a hazy long shot, then in close-ups glowing a Blakeian orange, of molten metal and clanking, shuddering machinery, seemingly operating without the help of workers.
As the location for the waged reproduction of labour power, the factory is the site of both exploitation and struggle: of potentiality and survival. But in the closing scene of the film, it’s the location only of Tank’s inevitable end, shot down by his former comrades in the Committee. Having begun with Martin Luther King’s death, we end with Tank’s. And whereas King’s funeral represents a collective process of mourning, Tank dies alone and unloved, killed not by a White racist, but by his former comrades. The ending was the subject of intense debate among the screenwriters: Mayfield and Dee favoured Tank’s death as suicide rather than execution (Sieving, 134).2 As such, the Committee would have avoided complicity with the cycle of death and betrayal that Tank has wrought. But in the film as shot, we’re left instead with the look of agony on the faces of his executioners, as they have to shoot one of their own, rather than uniting against cops or corrupt authorities. By focusing on Tank’s failure and on his fate, the film leaves the agency of a radical alternative as a kind of suspended question.
The anonymous FBI informant who worked on the production worried that Uptight condoned the actions of a “militant violent group,” and that “the obvious conclusion one draws from the ending […] is that the racial situation in the United States is unsolvable and will result in continued strife” (Sieving, 139). On the one hand, the film is said to endorse revolutionary action; on the other, to present the situation as unresolvable by any means. This perhaps unintentionally contradictory account is nonetheless true to the film’s awkward negotiation of identification and sympathy. A stool pigeon is hardly the most obvious embodiment of sympathy, yet Tank’s emotional turmoil contrasts with the relative lack of personal framing for the members of the Committee. The Committee may offer diagnosis, but it offers little in the way of either emotional investment or practical alternative. Besides the failed raid on the arms store, there’s very little sense of their general activities and of their relation to the broader community. For the FBI, Uptight’s refusal to condemn militancy is tantamount to condoning it. Yet the Committee offer virtually no alternative imagining of community, collectivity, or agency. A subterranean presence within their own community, it seems unlikely that the Committee can tap into the popular discontent following King’s death. The film’s one moment of collective possibility occurs when the cops come to arrest Johnny: the neighbours pelt them with bottles, a scene that author Greg Tate remarks has haunted him since childhood (Tate, quoted in Gonzalez). But once again, the scene ends only with Johnny’s death, approximated in a dizzying 360-degree spin. The cops drive off and the crowd disperses.
Uptight was released into a world marred by the recent or soon-to-occur killing, jailing, or exile of Black political leaders such as Fred Hampton, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Angela Davis. Urban insurrections and the spread of radical ideas sparked brutal repression, leading not to widespread revolutionary change, but to the Nixon era’s consolidation of existent power structures: to Black capitalism, deindustrialisation, and recession. Likewise, within the film industry, Mayfield’s, Dee’s, and Dassin’s nuanced depictions of militancy were succeeded by blaxploitation’s series of near-empty signifiers.3 Reviewing the film for the magazine Black Dialogue, poet Nikki Giovanni noted: “It would be foolish to expect a movie to plan and execute the/your/our revolution. That Hollywood is even considering a thing such as that is enough to make me tremble.” As Christopher Sieving has suggested, it was debatable whether commercial cinema could ever be an appropriate venue for the dissemination of radical ideas (Sieving, 157). “Yet,” Giovanni continues, “UP TIGHT is already the strongest possibility of a Black movie I have seen” (Giovanni, 14). Such possibility was taken up not in Hollywood, but in the independent cinema, controlled and produced by Black filmmakers, that emerged in the following decade. Most critical framings of Uptight place it as a kind of predecessor to blaxploitation. However, its depiction of an insurrectionary underground is better understood as a predecessor to films such as Larry Clark’s As Above, So Below (1973), and its nuanced depictions of a female protagonist to Barbaro in Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1975/1979) and Julie Dash’s Diary of an African Nun (1977) and Kaycee Williams in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1973/1978).
A Black woman who is neither sexualised, caricatured, nor silenced, Ruby Dee’s Laurie builds on relatively few precedents – Dee herself in A Raisin in the Sun, Abbey Lincoln in Nothing But A Man – and, as Giovanni suggests, she is in many ways key to this film. A single mother, Laurie attempts simply to provide for her two children without being evicted, whether through welfare payouts or sex work. While Tank engages primarily in alcoholic self-pity, alternating with vain attempts to reassert masculinised dominance, Laurie’s attitude is that of a grim realism. Doubly marginalised by race and gender, she is stronger than Tank, because she has to be, and at the film’s end, she survives while he does not. As Giovanni notes:
Tank hated himself; and Laurie was marginal. And Laurie survived. Is her commitment to survival enough? Or can we swing her in? Can we afford to let her drift? That’s the question. When will we find a place, an active place, for her? What will she tell her children? (Giovanni, 16)
For Giovanni, Laurie’s marginal position within the film both encapsulates and is adjacent to the broader question of collective survival. Without judgment, Giovanni asks her readers how to bridge the gap between failures like Tank, survivors like Laurie, and militants like the members of the Committee.
The choices faced here are stark. At one point in the film, Frank Silvera’s Kyle – the civil rights leader who, like King, still places faith in nonviolent struggle – argues with the militants that armed struggle will only encourage the rise of Fascism akin to that of Nazi Germany. “You’ll bring on the camps!” “What the hell do you think we’ve got now?” responds B. G. (Raymond St. Jacques). And Kyle’s former comrade Corbin (Dick Anthony Williams), now leader of the Committee, adds: “When you’re born Black in this country, you’re born dead. Don’t talk to us about being killed. We know about that.” In a sense, the film suggests, both positions are true. America is already on the road to Fascism. Both action and inaction could precipitate that path. White life is predicated on Black death. The film doesn’t suggest an alternative, doesn’t endorse either Kyle’s or Corbin’s or Tank’s or Laurie’s positions or courses of action. Uptight is a deeply contradictory film, but its contradictions lie not so much in a failure of individual artists, but in the structural conditions that produced it: the White supremacist underpinnings of Hollywood iconography and production practices, the double-binds of political life within a nation that Cornel West recently called a “failed social project.” Fifty years later, Uptight’s contradictory pessimism unfolds as a nightmare wide awake.
Thomas Cripps, Black Film as Genre. Indiana University Press, 1978.
Roger Ebert. Uptight (February 19, 1969). Roger Ebert.com. Web. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/up-tight-1969 Accessed July 19, 2020.
Nikki Giovanni, “And What About Laurie? (A Review of Uptight),” Black Dialogue, Spring 1969, Vol. IV, No.1: 14-16. (Online scan available at: https://www.freedomarchives.org/Documents/Finder/DOC32_scans/32.Various.BLM.Black.Dialogue.1969.pdf)
Michael A. Gonzalez. “UP TIGHT: 1st Blaxploitation Movie was a Baaad Mutha…” Ebony. Web: https://www.ebony.com/entertainment/up-tight-1st-blaxploitation-movie-was-a-baaad-mutha/. Accessed July 19,, 2020.
Cedric J. Robinson. On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance. Ed. by H.L.T. Quan. Pluto Press, 2019.
Christopher Sieving. Soul Searching: Black-Themed Cinema from the March on Washington to the Rise of Blaxploitation. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.
David C. Wall and Michael T. Martin. “Nothing But a Man and the Question of Black Film.” In Wall and Martin (eds.), The Politics and Poetics of Black Film: Nothing But a Man. Indiana University Press, 2015.
Frank B. Wilderson, III. Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press, 2010.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.
- The account of the film’s production given here relies on that provided by Sieving. [↩]
- It’s hard to determine the exact collaborative balance between Dassin, Dee and Mayfield. The dispute over the film’s ending indicates, however, that Dassin, as director, had the final say. [↩]
- On blaxploitation, see Cedric Robinson, “Blaxploitation and the Misrepresentation of Liberation’, in Robinson, 221-232. [↩]