On Sunday at 4 PM Black Cinema House will screen the rarely revived Uptight (1968), a drama set among black revolutionaries in Cleveland, Ohio. Urban planner and architecture critic Lee Bey will introduce the film and lead an informal discussion afterwards (tickets are free, but it’s recommended you reserve a seat—you can RSVP here). The movie features an original score by the great Booker T. Jones (his only one, save for John Cassavetes’s Opening Night) and a cast that includes Roscoe Lee Browne, Juanita Moore, and Ruby Dee, who also cowrote the script. The director is Jules Dassin, best known for the American film noirs The Naked City and Brute Force and the European heist movies Rififi and Topkapi. If you know Dassin from only those films, he might seem an odd fit for a movie about black radicals. In fact, Dassin’s radical politics predated his filmmaking career—and at one point, they almost ended it.
Born in New York to Russian-Jewish immigrants (and first making his name in show business as an actor in Yiddish theater), Dassin joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. He didn’t stay in the Party for long, though he remained an outspoken leftist, as evidenced by the pro-union sentiment of his great noir Thieves Highway (1949). When Edward Dmytryk named him as a former Communist in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952, Dassin was blacklisted. Two years later he left the U.S. for France. In 1966 he married Greek actress Melina Mercouri (who starred in several of his films), and the couple aided in efforts to restore democracy to Greece during its period of fascist dictatorship. Dassin even made a movie about the prodemocracy movement, The Rehearsal (1974), which dramatizes a fateful student protest at the Polytechnic School in Athens that ended with 40 students being shot down by soldiers. The filmmaker considered the movie an act of protest, so when the military junta fell just after shooting wrapped, Dassin decided not to release it, as he felt its time had passed. It remains difficult to see.
Dassin also conceived of Uptight as his contribution to an ongoing political discussion. The film presents the American civil rights movement at a moment of crisis, beginning with documentary footage of Martin Luther King’s funeral procession and growing more despairing from there. Tank, the protagonist, is an unemployed steel worker sliding into alcoholism. Desperate for money and disillusioned with his activist friends (who are becoming increasingly radicalized), Tank is persuaded to rat on a colleague for a $1,000 reward. Dassin modeled the story after John Ford’s The Informer (1935), which was set against the backdrop of the Irish revolutionary period. “The transplant doesn’t work,” Roger Ebert opined when the film opened in Chicago in 1969. “The Irish and black revolutions have little in common, either in methods or in style.” Still, he felt that the movie was valuable as a document of black attitudes of the time. He wrote:
Somewhat to my surprise, [the movie] doesn’t chicken out. 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. . . . The blacks in the audience at the Roosevelt applauded Uptight as a film that said something for them. It had nerve to portray the anger of the ghetto.