Mar 31, 2009

UpTight! @ Film Forum today

Screening today as part of the Jules Dassin' retrospective going on at Film Forum is UpTight!, a terse and melancholic 1968 thriller that is both vintage Dassin and a film out of time; its an odd piece of socio-cultural history, a Hollywood film which offers, despite its genre trappings, the most eloquent dramatization of the tensions that ultimately fractured the Civil Rights Movement. Dassin's remake of John Ford's The Informer set amongst warring black nationals and liberal integrationists in the impoverished Hough district of Cleveland, is informed very much by its northeastern Ohio setting and the historical moment, one in which the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, most clearly identified by Martin Luther King and his non-violent doctrine, began to lose the favor of working class blacks, especially in the north and west.

Unavailable on DVD and largely buried after its brief release, UpTight!, which was scripted by its co-stars Julien Mayfield and Ruby Dee, was the first film to emphasize the dissatisfaction in the black community at the paltry legislative gains of 64'-65'. That dissatisfaction, which crystalized with the wave of urban riots which began in Watts in 1965 that essentially shattered the Liberal Integrationist coalition (pre Stokely Carmichael SNCC, SCLC, NAACP) and the good faith the federal goverment was showing it, is rarely depicted. Although it contains much of Dassin's sometimes off putting directorial theatricality and his career long penchant for soliloquies, Mayfield and Max Julien (The Mack) as doomed black nationalists turn in memorable performances and the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman makes Hough into a shadowy and nightmarish post-industrial wasteland, albeit one punctuated by illusive moments of beauty.

Through the story of a drunken black nationist (Mayfield) who sells out his fellows to the cops and its observations of the community which houses this turmoil and dread, UpTight! suggests no easy solutions to any of the historical factors upon which it is based; this is no small thing, as almost every narrative film dealing with the rhetoric of Black Power at the time jumped right along for the ride (Sweetback for instance) or mocked it as bullocks (Superfly). UpTight! doesn't endorse revolution (and, quite presciently, doesn't see it as a credible historical reality), but it also refuses to easily dismiss the gains that had been made by 68'. Nor does it suggest that blacks of the era had been offered anything through those gains that could make up for the psychic and economic abuse they had (and would continue to) suffer.