Release Date(s)1968 (June 9, 2023)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint Films/Via Vision Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
Unjustly neglected, Uptight (or, alternatively, Up Tight!) is a rather amazing African-American reworking of John Ford’s classic film of Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer (1935). Though directed by white filmmaker Jules Dassin, he co-wrote the screenplay with two of the film’s stars, Julian Mayfield and Ruby Dee. The cast is like a Who’s Who of great black actors of that era; besides Mayfield and Dee, it includes Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera, Roscoe Lee Brown, Janet MacLachian, Max Julien, Juanita Moore, Dick Anthony Williams, Robert DoQui, James McEachin, and many others. Indeed, I’m pretty sure there’s just one white actor listed in the credits, Michael Baseleon, in a small but significant part. A few other white actors, such as familiar character player Robert Foulk, go unbilled entirely (and he’s not even listed on the IMDb’s or Wikipedia’s credits for the picture).
The story is set in Cleveland but uses the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968 in Memphis as its backdrop, the film taking place over roughly 24 hours during and following his funeral. The film includes amazing footage of King’s procession through the streets of Memphis, apparently shot in 35 mm by Uptight’s film crew (Jesse Jackson is plainly visible), and the completed film was in theaters by December 18, just nine months later. In the wake of the assassination, rioting followed in a number of cities, particularly Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City. In Uptight the film’s characters watch live television coverage of the funeral while local nonviolence advocate Kyle (Frank Silvera), among others, drives around the city’s black neighborhoods pleading them not to follow suit.
That it was produced by a major Hollywood studio, Paramount, is surprising. Director Dassin was an active Hollywood communist during his best years in the 1940s and was blacklisted in 1950, exiling him to Europe for nearly two decades. Employees at Paramount tipped off the FBI about the production, which closely monitored the filming and even hired crew members as informants (!). O bitter irony.
The film is excellent overall, though hamstrung a little in adapting and remaking, often quite closely, such an emphatically Irish original story. Imprint’s video transfer is superb, and its extra features are mostly worthwhile, if curious.
As Dr. King’s funeral airs live on television, black revolutionary Johnny Wells assembles his crew to steal guns from a Cleveland warehouse. Best friend “Tank” Williams (Julian Mayfield) is instrumental to the plan, but Johnny finds alcoholic Tank drowning his sorrow over King’s death with booze and unable to participate. Down one man, Johnny’s plan goes awry when a security guard shoots at the robbers and Johnny, returning fire, kills him. Johnny becomes the subject of a citywide dragnet.
Tank visits his girlfriend, Laurie (Ruby Dee), a single mother compensating for her paltry welfare checks through prostitution, and Tank is confronted by a haughty welfare worker checking on her. In the nearby remains of a burned-out house, Tank finds Johnny there, who explains he wants to see his Mama (Juanita Moore) before leaving town. He asks Tank to get word of this to the leader of the black revolutionaries, B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques), to have him send two of his men to watch over the house while he visits Mama.
Tank, anxious to rejoin the revolutionaries, arrives at their hideout but they reject him as unreliable, revealing even Johnny felt Tank, because of his drinking, could no longer be trusted. This, combined with blackmail threats from gay police informant “Daisy” (Roscoe Lee Brown) and the promise of a $1,000 reward, lead Tank to inform on his best friend.
The parts of Uptight that closely remake Ford’s film are interesting and well done for what they are, but what’s really fascinating about the picture is its timeliness then and now, and how it explores the division among blacks between supporters of Dr. King’s nonviolent movement versus the more radical black nationalist and revolutionary model, personified by Malcolm X and others (though the latter’s name is never mentioned, nor is the Nation of Islam or the Black Panther Party or any other actual group).
The film is like a distillation of this divide played in real-time, the fate of African-Americans at that very moment in time in microcosm just as so much was hanging in the balance, in every corner of the United States. In the film, the more cautious Kyle argues that change can only come about through nonviolence and by working through the political system, which B.G. and his lieutenant, Corbin (Dick Anthony Williams) reject, not without justifiable cynicism.
White activist Teddy (Michael Baseleon) reminds B.G. how they marched in Selma together, cried in each other’s arms after the murders of Medgar Evers and the Freedom Summer murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner (the latter two being white Jews). B.G.’s and the others’ rejection of Teddy at this stage of the civil rights fight is truly heartbreaking.
The cinematography by Boris Kaufman (L’Atalante, On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men) is superb, as is the production design by Alexandre Trauner (Rififi, Orson Welles’s Othello). Most of the film was shot on location in Cleveland, lending it a real documentary air—I was reminded that it captures the city much like the Lee Marvin reality TV series Lawbreaker—but Trauner’s soundstage sets blend seamlessly and artfully, especially (what I imagine had to have been on a soundstage) the set of the ghetto apartment building where Mama lives and where the police catch up with Johnny. Similarly, the musical score by Booker T. (Jones) & the MG’s, supported by singer Judith Grace Gatewood, is likewise outstanding, a perfect match for the material. John and Faith Hubley provided the unusual animated main titles.
Previously released on Blu-ray in the U.S. by Olive Films, Imprint’s Region-Free Blu-ray is a stunner, derived from a 2019 4K scan of the original camera negative by Paramount. Filmed for 1.85:1 widescreen but presented here at 1.78:1 full screen, the image is rich with color and razor-sharp throughout. The LPCM 2.0 mono is excellent for what it is, and supported by optional English subtitles.
Supplements consist of a new audio commentary track by film historians Alain Silver and Jim Ursini, a video essay on Uptight by film critic Christina Newland, and another video essay, this time on director Jules Dassin, by film historian Daniel Kremer.
All of these extras are worthwhile, even valuable but... as far as I know, not one of these people are black. Where’s the African-American perspective? Silver, Ursini, et. al. appear to cover all the major bases, but a black presence in the extras is conspicuously, even bizarrely absent.
This, however, is a minor complaint. Uptight is essential viewing, and still just as powerful as it was when it was new.
- Stuart Galbraith IV