In Focus is our chance to look a little closer at some of our favorite films. This edition of In Focus highlights our film of the month, Uptight (1968). We encourage you to share with us your thoughts on Uptight by leaving us a comment on Facebook, Letterboxd, Twitter, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. If we like what you have to say, we’ll add it to this page.
Uptight is a fascinating film for many reasons. A modernized remake of John Ford’s The Informer (1935), Dublin becomes Civil Rights era Cleveland and Irish Republicans are replaced by black revolutionary fighters. Days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Tank (Julian Mayfield) is an unemployed and itinerant steelworker who turns in his militant friend (Max Julien) to the police for a $1000 reward, resulting in an underground call to exact vengeance on the squealer.
It’s hard to imagine that in the hellishly tumultuous year that was 1968, this uncompromising film not only got made but received wide distribution. The film’s content wasn’t the only controversial factor; this was director Jules Dassin’s first American film after he was blacklisted and forced to Europe. According to the film’s actor and co-writer Ruby Dee, the studio did actually consider bowing out of the project but was convinced by Dassin’s passionate argument that it was too relevant to hold down.
The film’s place in the history of cinema is also an interesting one. Recent writings have credited it as the first example of blaxploitation film, a distinction usually given to slightly later films like Shaft (1971) or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). Perhaps it’s more accurate to think of it as a precursor to the genre. They share some elements, but Uptight‘s straight-played humorless devastation sets its mood far apart from the genre’s later fare. In one of the ways it does fit into the genre, many of the film’s actors rose to prominence for their roles in later blaxploitation films: Roscoe Lee Browne (Superfly T.N.T.), Raymond St. Jacques (Cotton Comes to Harlem), Juanita Moore (The Mack), Max Julian (The Mack), and Dick Anthony Williams (The Mack). It also features a soundtrack similar to the ones that would define blaxploitation, by the Memphis soul band (and one of the first popular racially integrated bands), Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
“Death is a fast teacher. They’ll learn — it’s clearer now.”
“Isn’t this a waste of time?”
“We’ll listen to what he has to say.”
“We know what he has to say.”
“Yes, we know… it’s going to start with ‘in the name of unity'”
“So inquisitive! He don’t mind you knowing his business, but he don’t want you to know all of it.”
Directed and c-written by Jules Dassin. After finding acclaim and popularity with his gritty film noirs such as The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950), the director came under HUAC’s fire in 1951. When he refused to testify, he was blacklisted and moved to France. There he burst back onto the film scene with Rififi (1955), then met his muse and future wife Melina Mercouri and made several successful films with her, including Never on Sunday (1960), Phaedra (1962), and Topkapi (1964). Uptight was the first film he was allowed to make after returning to America, and with it audiences could see how his directorial voice had been forever changed by his experiences overseas.
Cinematography by Boris Kaufman. The younger brother of masters Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (director and cinematographer of Man with a Movie Camera, respectively), Boris Kaufman got his start shooting the films of Jean Vigo (L’Atlante). He is perhaps now best remembered for his documentary-like cinematography in 12 Angry Men (1957) and On the Waterfront (1954), for which he won an Oscar.
Ruby Dee plays Laurie and co-wrote the screenplay. In a prolific career spanning eight decades, she took on a wide range of television and film roles including No Way Out (1950), The Jackie Robinson Story (1961), and A Raisin in the Sun (1961) before her iconic parts in Spike Lee’s films Do the Right Thing (1989) and Jungle Fever (1991). She and her husband Ossie Davis were visible Civil Rights activists, and close friends of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Playing Tank and also co-writing the screenplay was Julian Mayfield. Born in South Carolina and serving in the US Army during World War II, Mayfield’s film career was a short one with only one other film acting credit to his name, Our Virgin Island (1958). A prominent figure in New York’s black art movement in the 50s, he directed plays, including Ossie Davis’s 1952 Alice in Wonder. Like Dassin, he also faced persecution for his connections with the Communist Party, fleeing to Ghana in 1961. He returned to the US in 1967 to teach at Cornell, when he was invited by Dassin to work on the script for Uptight.
WHAT DID THE CRITICS SAY?
“There’s no backsliding, toward a conciliatory moderate conclusion. The passions and beliefs of black militants are presented head-on, with little in the way of comfort for white liberals. White racists, I guess, will be horrified beyond measure.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“The betrayed Irish patriot has been turned into a black militant, and the British occupation force into the white Establishment. None of this really works, but ‘Up Tight’ is such an intense and furious movie that it’s impossible not to take seriously.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times
“Artistically Uptight is sort of a mixed bag. The authentic MLK funeral atmosphere doesn’t quite mix with the melodramatic ups and downs of the original ‘Informer’ plotline.” — Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
Uptight is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films.
February 3, 2017