Uptight! (1968): Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Uptight was released in December of the same year. It’s a rather unnerving circumstance because the movie was conceived well before the horrid tragedy, and yet this cataclysmic moment haunts the picture. If the struggle for unity was a tough proposition before, how do you begin to make sense of the moment afterward? Now a story that didn’t necessarily need this specificity was inextricably linked to very real events. The film in its updated form literally begins with the wake of MLK.

Only recently did I recognize two separate films that recontextualized Irish struggles during The Troubles with the black experience in the 1960s. John Ford’s The Informer became Uptight with Ruby Dee and Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out turned in The Lost Man with Sidney Poitier.

Although I don’t know enough about the nuance and minutiae of these respective histories, I am fascinated to learn if this was merely a coincidence, a marketing strategy someone actually employed, or a small cog in a broader genre conversation.

Jules Dassin and Ruby Dee are easy to tap as the primary architects, one a causality of The Hollywood Blacklist that forced him into European exile, and then Dee, along with her husband Ossie Davis, were two of the foremost black performers and social activists of their generation.

Given this context, it’s not surprising, the film hardly made a blip on the broader cultural landscape. In an era of COINTELPRO, this movie seems more timely than many people realize and a testament to that might just be that very few people recognize the movie. This is not the type of film that would get championed because even today it bristles against some prevailing sensibilities and causes us to reconsider the trajectory of our nation’s legacy.

The FBI purportedly had informants in the crew who helped them keep tabs on the production. The crew, including its director, was predominantly white while the movie was financed by one of the big studios: Paramount Pictures. This is the context of a picture that floundered at the box office.

The film itself is set in Cleveland, Ohio where tensions are high. The nonviolent philosophy of MLK has been brutalized, and the rest of the black community seethes with rage, understandably so. It sets the groundwork for fiercer insurrection. The emerging leadership believes it’s time for a new vision to take its place.

Growing sentiments of disillusionment are made clear early on: “The man from love got his head shot off, and all those people learned nothing.” And they derisively criticize what’s come before:  “Cry, march, pray, that’s the way to win Whitie’s heart.”

Crucial to the film’s core dilemma is the character of Tank (Julian Mayfield). The movie resculpts Victor McLaglen’s carousing tragic turncoat into an even more pitiful figure if it’s possible. Because McLaglen is at least physically imposing albeit neutralized by drink and his own weak-willed failings. Tank here feels like an even sorrier figure. James Earl Jones, who could have been slated for the role, is a muscular, stronger stage presence. Somehow it wouldn’t work in the same manner as Mayfield.

He’s a wretched cast-off grappling for some sense of belonging and searching for people around him who will trust in him and let him be an integral part of their lives even as he backslides. One is Johnny (Max Julien), a member of the local militant movement, but also a lifelong confidante. It seems like the tides of the times are moving and they will leave stragglers like Tank behind unless they get with it.

Ruby Dee plays the other crucial part as Laurie a single mother who carves out an existence for herself as a prostitute. I’m not sure if they’re immediately plausible as a romantic pair, although there’s a kindred spirit between them that feels real with affection as well as reproachfulness. Dee’s imbued with both playing a woman trying to eke by as the world continues to writhe around her.

Because there’s a heartlessness in the face of the impending revolution. Roscoe Lee Brown feels simultaneously crass and charismatic as a man who has gotten fat off a career as a police informant. Black men on street corners stand on their soapboxes preaching black power to the restless masses. Women preach an unswerving Christian rhetoric from their posts. The movement itself is represented by the quiet authoritarianism of a cool cat simply known as B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques).

A deserted bowling alley becomes a forum to air grievances and discuss courses of action within the differing factions: those who believe that Selma, Birmingham, and lunch counters are all old hat. Then, there are others still trying to keep the social doctrines of Dr. King alive maintaining there are legal channels to pursue change for the broader black community.

In this dialogue, one of the most intriguing figures is Teddy (Michael Baseleon). He feels like a James Reeb or James Zwerg type, a white man, and yet a man who earned his stripes in the tussles of Dr. King and Civil Rights. He’s been through the maelstrom. He’s counted the cost and yet to the emerging generation of young black power leaders, his skin betrays him. His ex-communication, even peacefully, from this space, seems to signify a point of no return. None of them know how prescient this will prove to be.

Because under the neon lights of Cleveland’s nightlife, Tank makes his Judas choice — to turn in his best friend — literally trudging through the muddy water of the gutter. He’s been besmirched both inside and out.

The film leans into campier moments from the bar where Tank lives it up and then the local arcade where he has a blast in the shooting gallery before scaring the heebie-jeebies out of some bubbleheaded whites in the funhouse. Blacks and whites alike seem to only exist to string out Tank’s delusions, becoming these grotesque stereotypes as reality (and morality) begin to fragment around him.

The wake for Johnny is one of the most arresting sequences where Dassin again exerts his influence over the material. I’ve rarely seen a sweatier face than Julian Mayfield as he drips all over the scene. The low angles stack towering figures all around that make Tank quake with fear in the presence of everyone. It’s a strangely tranquil space that he fills up with his totally unhinged paranoia as his guilt sets in and closes in around him like a noose.

And then he shares a scene with Ruby Dee running to her for comfort. I can’t quite describe the moment: she’s flailing, gasping for air through the tears, and trying to smack him until she falls over on top of him. She loathes him and loves him and feels sorry for him all at the same time.

As the story is stretched out, I got the sense, even as it remained pretty close to John Ford’s film, that Uptight deserved its own resolutions and universe with a level of nuance fit for its current events. But as we come to understand, this is more poetic and not a stab of purely social realism; it allows us the pliability to accept everything that happens on their own terms.

Whereas John Ford was going into expressionistic territory with inspiration nicked from people like F.W. Murnau, Dassin employs his own kind of stylized language to make sense of a story that he’s an outsider to and also probably still deeply sympathetic towards.

To that end, there’s no churchly absolution to absolve Tank from his sins. He’s literally left in a dirt heap, another sorry life, and another black man left for dead. The upbeat Booker T. and The MGs finale can’t do anything to negate the breadth of this tragedy. Even years later, as a nation, we’re still coming to terms with these events. Because we live in a progressive society encouraging non-violence, and yet in the face of inaction — when nothing seems to change, the call for a more aggressive response is hard to rebuff.

Uptight is not the film I was expecting, but my hope is that more people can see it as a segue into conversations. It tackles the issues of 1968 more overtly than the majority of films of the era. Although it hardly reaped the reward at the time, surely it deserves more consideration now. And if nothing else, it’s another crowning testament of two underrated icons: Ruby Dee and Jules Dassin.

4/5 Stars

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