The low-budget feature Top of the Heap was released in 1972 by Fanfare Films, a distributor that specialized in exploitation movies like Born Losers and Execution Squad. Christopher St. John, the film’s writer, director, producer, and star, had played a supporting role in Shaft and acted in some soft-core porn films marketed primarily to black audiences. Given the histories of its distributor and auteur, American spectators likely assumed that Heap would be a run-of-the-mill blaxploitation flick—though, to be fair, a brief synopsis would seem to promise this too. St. John plays a black police officer in Washington, D.C., who feels alienated from many of his fellow cops, who look down on him because he’s black, as well as his family and peers, who look down on him for serving the Man. As personal and professional stresses pile up, the cop loses his grip on reality and ultimately breaks out in violence.
But Top of the Heap is no low-rent action movie. The conversations about black upward mobility are serious and ambiguous. The acting is focused, even understated at times (it’s worth noting that St. John had been a member of both the Yale Repertory Theater and the New York-based Actors Studio before he started appearing in exploitation movies). And, most surprisingly, Heap is full of ambitious dream sequences that dramatize the protagonist’s troubled subconscious. Some of these—like the ones in which St. John imagines himself as the first black man on the moon—are silly and satirical in nature. Others—like his nightmare of being visited by his dead mother—display the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and other European art films.
“It’s a whimsical, magical, political mishmash,” says local programmer Floyd Webb, who’s presenting the movie at Black Cinema House on Sunday, October 20. The screening marks a personal triumph for Webb, as he’s been trying to show Heap in Chicago since 1982. That was the year he began Blacklight Cinema, an annual festival of work by independent black filmmakers that he ran until 1995. He learned about Heap as soon as he started looking for movies to program. By the early 80s, it had become legendary among programmers and filmmakers for being one of the rare art movies to emerge from the world of blaxploitation.
The more Webb researched the film, the more fascinated he became. Evidently St. John secretly presented Heap at the Berlin Film Festival before its U.S. release. “It was a real popular film!” Webb enthusiastically recounts. “It ended up playing in Berlin for a week after the festival, and St. John got invited to show it at Cannes. . . . The studio didn’t want that, 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.”
The story gets worse. Soon after the film received its curtailed U.S. release, “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. 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.”
St. John’s career never really recovered. He continued to get acting work, but he never completed another feature as writer or director. (Webb tells me that he began shooting another unusual project in the mid-70s—a horror film set in India—though he wasn’t able to see it through.) And because of unresolved rights issues, Top of the Heap has barely screened in the U.S. for almost 40 years. The movie became so rare, in fact, that Webb—despite his numerous efforts to program it—wasn’t able to see it until last year. He had contacted St. John the year before about showing Heap in a new series that would look back on Blacklight Cinema (that series, Return of Blacklight Cinema, started up this summer). Still hurting from the suppression of the film, St. John didn’t give the go-ahead for a revival until his son, Kristoff St. John, stepped in to plead on Webb’s behalf.
“Kristoff thought it was a shame that his father never received any accolades [in the U.S.] for his film,” Webb says, “and that it was terrible what Hollywood did to him.” Perhaps this screening will be the first step in Heap‘s belated rediscovery.