- JEFFREY MARINI
- Webb, standing in front of a scene from Top of the Heap
I regret that the article I wrote for the Reader‘s Fall Arts Preview—about local programmer Floyd Webb and his efforts to screen the film Top of the Heap in Chicago—contains so little of my interview with Webb, a wonderful raconteur with a seemingly bottomless collection of tales. (During the postshow discussion at
lastWednesday night’s screening of Faces of Women, which he programmed, Webb touched on going to Tanzania in the 1970s, meeting Ivory Coast director Desiré Ecaré, and even the history of western religions in Africa.) In preparing my article, I spoke with Webb for nearly an hour, during which time he treated me to numerous stories about black underground cinema and the history of Chicago art house programming. I thought it would be a shame for all those stories to go to waste, so I’ve decided to post our conversation here. (If you’d like to hear Webb’s stories in person, he’s introducing another screening of Faces of Women at Chicago Filmmakers on Saturday at 7:30 PM.)
Ben Sachs: I’d like to talk to you about two things: Blacklight Cinema, the film festival you used to run, and the upcoming screening of Top of the Heap. Where would you like to begin?
Floyd Webb: Blacklight, Blacklight . . . let’s start there.
The festival ran from 1982 to 1996, right?
I believe it was ’95, but yeah, it began in ’82. When I started Blacklight, I was involved with Chicago Filmmakers and working as a photographer. There was a place at 18th and Michigan where we started showing films. I had always been a film fan, and we had a great art [movie] scene back then. I watched a lot of movies at the Playboy Theater, which later became the Sandburg Theater. There was Japanese cinema at Francis Parker Auditorium . . .
I think what affected me more than anything was getting involved with the Community Film Workshop. In order to get into the Workshop—which was run for maybe 15 or 20 years by a guy called Jim Taylor—you had to go through a ten-week film education course. It was a free course, and you had to go every week to be considered for the filmmaking class . . . I got into that straight out of high school. I was going to school part-time, working part-time, and hanging out there. It was exciting. I could have been interested in worse things.
When I got involved [with the Community Film Workshop] again, I was working as a volunteer. I had been away for a while—I had left Chicago in 1973, went away to Europe and then to Africa. So I was gone a few years, but I was still interested in cinema. Everywhere I went, I’d go to movies. When I was London, I went to the National Film Theatre, which was right on the Thames. I’d also get down to the theater by the docks and watch stuff like Truck Turner. I had lots of these adventures in cinema.
I was studying music back then, and it was through that I got the cinch of doing things for yourself, creating something for yourself. But what really got Blacklight going was this festival [held] at South Shore High School in 1981. It wasn’t run very well, it was a little disappointing, but it showed a lot of the films that had come through the Black Filmmakers Collective, which was run by Warrington Hudlin, whom I’d met a couple of times after I came back to the country in 1979.
I met Warrington at the first black independent filmmakers conference, which was at the City College of New York. This was where everybody got together. I mean, I met everybody! I met Spike [Lee], Julie Dash . . . so, I met a lot of people who were on the ground floor, and they really needed a showcase to get an audience for this thing.
I need to skip backwards for a little bit, because something real weird happened to me that I always forget because it was a bad experience. I went to Hollywood when I was 19 years old—it had to be 1972. I didn’t go away to college; I went to Triton, and I had a friend there named Antoine. They used to have Black Expo, and Antoine met some people [there] from a studio that made blaxploitation movies. Next thing he knew, he was running back and forth to L.A., talking to these people.
Antoine was a real interesting character. He could talk his way into anything. So, he called me up one day and said, “Weren’t you working on a screenplay?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Is it done?” I said, “Not really.” “Well, finish it! I’m sending you a ticket to come to L.A.” [laughs] So I got a ticket to L.A., I’m 19 years old, and Antoine picks me up at the airport. I don’t know what he’s doing, he’s just going to introduce me to some people he knows. He brings me to some fleabag motel off Sunset Boulevard. And what can I say? I’m curious. I never really thought I’d go to Hollywood at all. Cinema always moved me, but I wanted to be a photographer.
I had started the screenplay shortly after Fred Hampton was killed. I was about 16 years old when that happened, and it’s when I discovered the power of cinema. I had tried to get on the crew of The Murder of Fred Hampton, because I lived in Englewood . . . I always knew that something had to be done along these lines, to create and exhibit the work that made some sort of a difference to people.
Anyway, I met a guy named Hugh Robertson in that fleabag motel. It was a really creepy place, by the way—it was like something out of Midnight Cowboy, really! Anyway, Hugh Robertson was an editor and he’d been nominated for an Academy Award for editing Midnight Cowboy. But that wasn’t as important to me as the fact that he had worked for Shirley Clarke—he edited one of her films. He was just starting a film of his own called Melinda, which was going to star Calvin Lockhart.
Well, he said he wasn’t going to stay in L.A. He said, “This isn’t working for me—it’s not working for any of us black independent filmmakers.” He said he was going to Trinidad to start a school, and sure enough, that’s what he did. He did Melinda, and shortly after he left.
After I was in L.A., things ended badly. Some really weird things happened around Antoine, who eventually ended up in the Army and died. He died trying to get out of the Army, under really strange circumstances. I ended up leaving [the U.S.] and going to Europe and Africa.
Along the way I met a lot of people who were filmmakers, I met people who were screening movies around Chicago, and I was working as a volunteer projectionist at Chicago Filmmakers. Eventually it started to come together. I realized I could just make some phone calls, get enough films, and have a film festival. I saw that the South Shore Film Festival, which happened in 1981, wasn’t going to happen again. I was at Chicago Filmmakers, and I was doing volunteer work with the Film Workshop, so I thought I could get the help of these organizations. I also met Richard Peña, who later became head of the New York Film Festival and was then the head of Film Center of the School of the Art Institute. He kind of taught me the ropes of doing a film festival.
So, I had a lot of good influences—like Omar Kaihatsu, who ran the Japanese film screenings at Francis W. Parker Auditorium for years. I remember talking to him about it. He said, “You don’t want to get in this business. This is awful!” He was right! [laughs] But then, I wouldn’t have become an expert in Japanese film if [it] hadn’t been for what Omar Kaihatsu had done. You know, we once had a Japanese film festival in Chicago. It was at the World Playhouse on Michigan Avenue, before it became the Fine Arts Theater. Back then, the theater used to run a lot of soft porn. But thanks to Omar, one summer they ran a whole month of Japanese films, from ten o’clock in the morning until ten at night! That was my baptism into cinema, because I went every day. Sometimes I would go punch into work at Sears, split, go to the movies, and come back, because they were showing something that wasn’t coming back. I got in trouble, of course. Thankfully I got on probation instead of getting fired.
How did you run Blacklight Cinema once it got started?
I ran it with a bunch of different organizations—I didn’t work with one group. I was still working as a freelance photographer and leaving town a lot, so I didn’t want to get bogged down in this. But I worked with Chicago Filmmakers—we had screenings there. We had screenings at the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute (before it became the Gene Siskel Film Center). Later, we had screenings at Facets and the DuSable Museum.
I incorporated Blacklight Cinema as a not-for-profit at the end of 1983. On a side note, I didn’t know anything about grants at the time. That wasn’t a world I was familiar with. But when we incorporated, we got support from Soft Sheen Products and [its owner] Ed Gardner. I was working with a group called the Forum for the Evolution of Progressive Artists—that lasted about one summer.
For the second year of the festival, we brought in Gordon Parks, whom I’d met through a friend of mine, a documentary filmmaker named St. Clair Bourne. This network was how everything happened. We didn’t have the Internet, but we did have newsletters, like Chamba Notes. That was a black-film newsletter put out by St. Clair Bourne. He’d write about what films were coming out, have interviews with black filmmakers, put out information about grants. It was a little, yellow, eight-page thing that was printed nicely. That was where I got a lot of my information.
I started going to festivals. I would try to go to Toronto and a few others, though I couldn’t always afford to travel. Eventually we got an office. We got grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago City Arts Council, when it was under Fred Fine. We did really well during the reign of Harold Washington.
Let’s move on to Top of the Heap. Can you tell me how you came upon this movie?
The first time I heard about this film was in 1981. I was talking to St. Clair Bourne—I used to go to New York all the time—and one day he says, “Man, do you know what would be a great film to show at your festival?” I said, “What?” He said, “Top of the Heap.” I said, “Never heard of it.” He said, “It came out, but only briefly, even though the film got nominated for a Golden Bear [at the Berlin Film Festival].” So I looked and I tried to find information, but I couldn’t find anything. But eventually, St. Clair came up with the filmmaker’s phone number! And I called him.
I didn’t get him in ’81, but I got him in ’82, when I was starting Blacklight. St. Clair was like, “Man, you’ve gotta show this film,” when he heard I was going to run a film festival by myself. “This is the film you have to get. You have to get [it]. It’s an atypical blaxploitation films. We had these films that were supposed to be blaxploitation but really weren’t.” You know, another film that gets classified as blaxploitation is Ganja and Hess, which is a vampire movie . . .
That’s a great movie!
Yeah, St. Clair, [Hess writer-director] Bill [Gunn] and I used to have dinner together some nights when I was in New York, and we’d talk film. And Top of the Heap always came up. You know, Bill was real active in Hollywood, and the stories he told me about what happened to the filmmaker [Christopher St. John]—oh man . . .
Chris was an actor. He had starred in a couple of blaxploitation movies and he also played the militant in Shaft. Chris St. John had auditioned for the character of Shaft, but he didn’t get that, so they made him this militant, right? He was also in a couple of minor blaxploitation soft-porn films . . .
It was a real easy task to get the film made. Like, almost anybody who had a screenplay could get [blaxploitation studio] Fanfare to finance it, but he was going to make a movie. When he finished, he took the film to Berlin—it was a real popular film. It ended up playing a week there after the Golden Bear nomination, and he got invited to show it at Cannes. The producers didn’t want it to go to Cannes, though, and they stopped it from going. He wasn’t supposed to make an art film; he was supposed to make an exploitation film. Who did he think he was and blah blah blah.
And then, someone pulled a real doozy on him. Two writers claimed they worked on the project and didn’t get any credit on the screenplay. The Writers’ Guild shut the film down, took away its right to be distributed, but they never took [St. John] to court. But the film was shut down—and basically, Chris was shut down as a filmmaker. Now, he was known [in Hollywood] as a troublemaker because he had done all the wrong things.
To me, this is the way Jim Crow really works. There was this Hollywood Jim Crow. I learned this from talking to St. Clair, from meeting Hugh Robertson, talking to Bill Gunn and other people working there. If you were a black filmmaker, you were restricted to a certain point in terms of worldview. And if you didn’t succumb to the dominant worldview or if you had any kind of a visible political agenda, then you could be shut down.
Apart from its political agenda, why is Top of the Heap a special film for you?
Because it’s a film about dreams. In a blaxploitation film, you usually know what’s going to happen. Somebody’s going to be wronged and somebody’s going to be avenged. Someone’s going to uphold the interests of the community. And along the way, there’s going to be a whole lot of shooting.
This movie’s about a cop who’s experiencing mental trouble. He doesn’t really like his job—and he’s being passed over for a promotion [in spite of his long service record]. He’s got a teenage daughter that’s getting out of hand with drugs and boys. He’s got a wife he can’t stand and a girlfriend who sings him songs when she talks to him. He’s stuck in the middle of all this in his personal life, and he sees all this craziness as a cop. There’s a scene in this where he gets in a road rage thing with this taxi driver, who jumps out of the car, yelling at him, calling him all sorts of names. Then [St. John] pulls out his gun and shows his badge. And the scene changes all of a sudden. It gets scary—you don’t know if he’s going to kill him. And then you’ve got these daydream sequences where he dreams he’s an astronaut or Tarzan in Africa. It’s just a whimsical, magical, political mishmash. And I only saw it a couple months ago because you couldn’t get it.
You didn’t end up showing it in 1982, then?
I did not. This was the film that got away. When I was approached to do [Return of Blacklight Cinema], I said, “Look, I’ve got to show the film that I looked for in 1982 but couldn’t find until last year.” I found it last year, when I finally got in touch with Chris again.
St. Clair Bourne had died a few years before, and I was going through some old papers of his. I found some notes of a talk we had one time, and I saw Top of the Heap. I thought, “I wonder whatever happened to that movie.” I still had Chris St. John’s phone number. I called it, and he actually answered the phone. I told him, “I’m not doing Blacklight anymore, but I’m doing a new program.” I told him about how I’d tried to show Top of the Heap for all those years. He was still kind of sensitive about it; he was noncommittal. A year later, his son Kristoff St. John got in touch with me. Kristoff St. John is also an actor—he plays on soap operas. Anyway, he started talking to me about showing the film. He said Christopher never received any accolades here for the film . . . and that it’s terrible what Hollywood did to him.
What did he do after Top of the Heap?
He tried to make a couple films. He worked on one called The Avatar, in which he takes his whole family to India to make a movie about a guru. He made this when Kristoff was a kid. In the film, his wife wants to go live at this school run by the guru . . . and it turns into a horror film. [laughs] He still hasn’t finished that one, unfortunately.
Top of the Heap is probably one of the most famous films that no one knows anything about. I find that more of my European friends know about the film than my American friends. Because the film’s been shown there. In fact, I think we’ll be one of the only places in the U.S. to have shown it since 1972.