With Judas and the Black Messiah one year in the rearview mirror, I decided to look back on a much more full-throated critique of American modernity, a vicious screed and an acidic reminder of how far we haven’t come.
Uptight wears its frustration right on its sleeve, palpitating and sweating and threatening to tear apart the screen. Indeed, it might have been torn apart before release. Focusing on government attempts to internally dismantle black radical organizations, seeding them with informants, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the film crew itself included at least one unknown FBI informant in a case of life imitating art imitating life. Uptight thus justified its existence in the act of its very production. For African American writer-actors Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield and white writer-director Jules Dassin, the film resonated with their own experiences as leftist organizers, especially Dee’s work with the SCLC and CORE. Mayfield and Dassin’s own respective exiles to France (for Dassin’s membership in the Communist Party) and the recently liberated Ghana (for Mayfield’s work with NAACP local leader Robert F. Williams, who famously resisted the NAACP’s non-violent philosophy and provided a crucial link between liberal integrationism and Black Power) also haunt the film, potentializing it with awareness of how much is at stake in resisting the status quo. Uptight was the product of organic intellectuals who invested their personal energy into a film that kindles and threatens to overflow. It feels electric, like it could explode at any minute, but also weary and anxious, encroaching on exhaustion, like it knows that it might not be able to sustain itself, looking both over its shoulder and into a foggy future, worried about what comes in the hazy oncoming 1970s.
Set in Cleveland, Ohio, Uptight nonetheless begins with Dassin’s own guerilla-shot footage at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. As diegetic images ostensibly placing us in Atlanta reveal groups of Cleveland radicals observing the funeral on television, Uptight immediately foregrounds viewing and perception as key fulcrums of collective engagement with a national consciousness. Concerning increasing friction in black organizing after King’s assassination, Uptight nonetheless makes clear the shared bonds of frustration that resonate with every character on-screen. The narrative through-line concerns Tank (Julian Mayfield), asked by his brother Johnny (Max Julien), leader of a local organization chapter (implicitly a chapter of the Black Panthers but not named as such), to accompany them on a night raid to steal guns. Shook by the death of King, he initially refuses. Although he gestures, perhaps disingenuously, toward joining at the last minute, Johnny doesn’t hear, ultimately killing a guard in the raid. The rest of the film concerns the police’s attempts, largely through black informer Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne), to convince Tank to inform on Johnny, and, once Tank gives Johnny up, the organization’s attempts to track him down and resolve their problem.
Based on John Ford and Dudley Nichols’ 1935 classic The Informer, itself adapted from Liam O’Flaherty’s novel about an IRA member who defected, Uptight retains the same narrative spine but alters both the thematic focus and the style. Ford’s film is an early American gloss on German Expressionism and a noir progenitor, resonating with Depression-era works like You Only Live Once in depicting social renegades lost in a quagmire of confusion and uncertainty. Dassin inherited those sensibilities in his early classic 1948 film The Naked City, which thoughtfully combined neorealist and film noir styles and, in doing so, suggested that shambolic non-structured realism and shadowy expressionism were, despite being ostensible antitheses, both expressions of post-war malaise and rampant social oppression. Uptight finds an analog for these anxieties in Dassin’s grimy hyperbole for Ford’s astonishingly misty chiaroscuro. Formally, Uptight most closely resonates with Dassin’s astonishing London-set Night and the City, a similar story about a fumbling, sweaty mass of nerves being pulverized by the film’s very ontology, throwing him down circles of stairs and spinning in circles around his head. Dassin turns the dial way back to these earlier days in Uptight, before he spent much of the ‘60s sprucing up some truly phenomenal but more collected works like the glistening Topkapi, films that were generally more elegant and anointed than Dassin’s hungrier, earlier works. Uptight, conversely, feels like a cinematic raw nerve, a clammy, live-wire film, flexing wiry muscles in nearly every scene, all the more brazenly direct in light of the fifty-three-years-later Judas and the Black Messiah, a fine film about similar themes that is not as politically astute and not nearly as formally accomplished or thornily textured.
At times, Uptight feels like it’s at its own throat, being torn apart by competing impulses. Perspiring and grubby, a New Hollywood hot-house of a film rejecting the niceties of Classical Hollywood, it is also nonetheless very much in the tradition of mid-century theater of morals. Drawing from Dee’s and Mayfield’s own theatrical backgrounds, everything is stylized and tilted toward a layer of heightened abstraction, from the stage-like streets to the somewhat manicured acting. Yet the contrast produces sparks, threading the needle between characters as people and figures as ideas, staged with a heavy, just-barely-invisible Proscenium that emphasizes the performativity of radicalism, the way in which being seen and not being seen can inform the fate of any situation, or, as the Panthers themselves put it, the “shadow” of the gun, the threat of violence and the pressured, organized capacity to resist, means as much as the gun itself. This tension, between grimy workaday reality and mannered unreality, lends Uptight an almost dialectical tension, the film pitting internal and external selves, realities and desires, off of each other.
Of course, the film’s focus on Tank, a wayward, excommunicated soul who sells out a community, has enough history in U.S. cinema, with the likes of On the Waterfront and High Noon obviously dueling it out with subliminal HUAC themes, conduits for their creators’ frustrations with telling or being told on. But Uptight poses difficult questions that twist the knot of depoliticized individualism that many of those films rely on. Rather than a nearly metaphysical question about individual purity and goodness, Uptight is thickly enmeshed in the social status quo, beginning with black Clevelanders mourning Dr. King’s death in the streets and several film characters reacting in a slurry of mixed emotions. Self-aware about the layers of interrelation that inform the radical activity, Uptight threads multiple intermeshing levels of conspiratorial activity and perception around Mayfield’s character, his long night of the soul resonating with multiple layers of social reality as the film pushes us to empathize with multiple perspectives without sympathizing with Tank’s tragic willingness to sell out his comrades.
Many of Dassin’s classic mid-century noirs explore the lonely individual just barely eeking by in the maelstrom of a modernity where city spaces are increasingly populated but all the more anonymous, where every site is a potential crowd for disguising oneself or being discovered, where new forms of collectivity are generated that nonetheless lack conventional or a priori group identities or similarities around which to congeal themselves. Uptight latches onto this implicit theme in many noirs, more often tackled in classic works like The Killing by focusing on teams gathered together to commit crimes, and explores what it means for politicization and organized revolt. Communities seem always in motion between connecting and diffusing, every presence soon a potential absence just as much as every absence holds the space for a potential presence. Uptight never loses this friction, but it does catalyze sparks. Johnny’s death is staged as a social theater affecting the entire neighborhoods, metaphorically (and literally) tilting the film off its axis, a more-than-360-degree camera turn unraveling the film’s tightly coiled energy as Tank’s collapsing star is subsumed into a metaphorical carnivalesque. Dassin’s work as a crime and noir director turns the film in on itself, the city becoming a distorted and confused space that breaks, mid-film, into a fun-house mirror. Slightly later, Tank visits his old job at a steel mill and has a nearly incandescent mental communion with it, industry figured in its mid-century guise as a sublime and world-altering radiant power. At the film’s end, Tank’s fate recalls another noir classic, 1948’s White Heat, mentally prefiguring the ‘70s and ‘80s as a desperate tumble. The same sublime power Tank wished to return to mid-film now drowns him out. Coal and soot and industrial malaise blanket the screen in a toxic fugue of post-industrial confusion, a dark harbinger of neoliberal notions of unregulated free-market capitalism and self-help soon to displace revolutionary urges that, as Uptight reminds us, were less failed than consciously corrupted and distorted by the powers that be.