Probably the best race movie not named Medium Cool, which came out a year later, Up Tight! (actually titled simply as Uptight in the opening credits) is a surprise film from Jules Dassin, the American-born director who left for France in the wake of HUAC and would eventually die in Greece.
Dassin is best remembered, and rightfully so, for the masterful Rififi (1955) which features an extended silent robbery sequence. Probably thought of mostly as a French director – his Topkapi (1964) was also filmed in France – his American period, which lasted until 1953, was his most prolific, spanning 12 films, including one of Lancaster’s best, 1947’s prison-noir Brute Force.
Uptight is therefore a bit of an anomaly, in that its Dassin’s only American production post-1950, it comes amidst a number of French and Greek films, and its post-MLK, race-related content sticks out like a sore thumb alongside 10:30 PM Summer (1966) and Promise at Dawn (1970).
Dassin based the script off of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel, The Informers, and transposed that story’s IRA content onto a Black Panther, Cleveland-set narrative. First-time actor Julian Mayfield, who plays the lead character Tank, also co-wrote the script, alongside Ruby Dee, who plays Laurie and would go on to star in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991) and Do The Right Thing (1989).
Tank is a drunk. Four days after Martin Luther King’s assassination he’s supposed to take part in an arms warehouse robbery led by Johnny Wells (Max Julien), but he backs out at the last second – too intoxicated and despondent. The shorthanded robbery turns sour and Johnny is soon wanted for murder. Tank is kicked out of the Black Panthers (though they aren’t named as such, the reference is clear) by B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques, who very nearly steals the show) and the temptation to turn Johnny in for the $1000 reward becomes irresistible.
Up Tight! was made in 1968. That’s a fast production schedule for a film that utilizes MLK’s assassination as backdrop – he was killed in April of that year. Dassin, Mayfield and Dee use a variety of characters to provide the diverging philosophies of the time. B.G. – quiet but eloquent – represents the militant faction. Opposing his view, but attempting to work with him, is Kyle (Frank Silvera), the older voice, still espousing pacifism, visually separated by costume design – his suit to the Panthers less formal-wear. Teddy (Michael Baseleon) is the white sympathetic voice, shunned by the Panthers for his “wrong complexion,” who tells the group, not arrogantly “without me you can’t win. Without me you’re gonna get killed.” There’s Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne), the gay, African-American informant, uninterested in the cause, and a bit of a closeted existentialist. And then there’s Tank, who wants so desperately to care, to belong and to matter, but can’t seem to do anything right.
Missing for much of the narrative is the white racist voice, though it features prominently into at least one scene – and one of the best in the film – which I’ll detail below. Up Tight! is in the end an eye-opening precursor to Medium Cool, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song! (1971), and the Black Panthers newsreels of that same year (Off The Pig, 1968), but similarly it’s a clear deviation from the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), upper-class problems.
It’s a film that’s very wary of the impending call to arms, addresses the value of life with open eyes – the final sequence featuring Tank on the run from his possible-killers, members of the Panther party – accuses neither but manages to be life-affirming in its subjective shots, and disparages neither the non-violent nor the militant tactic. It’s less of a powder keg waiting to blow than the early formations of a question without an answer.
Here’s a look at the aforementioned sequence. Tank, drunk and flush, stumbles into an arcade/carnival. A group of clearly affluent white folks arrive and are immediately curious about the lone black man in the shop. Taking advantage of his drunkenness they mockingly ask him to “tell us the plan, please!”
Dassin starts with a medium-shot, showing Tank surrounded by these interlopers:
To signal a change in the style he cuts to low-angle shots as they continue to question him. The low angles making them just a bit more grotesque. And check out the backgrounds – very warped:
What follows is Tank’s drunken rambling about a plan. It’s funny, scary and convincing all at once. Watch how Dassin chooses to shoot it:
After the first shot above, the entire sequence is framed in the fun-house mirrors. Dassin does a great job of setting Tank apart when possible, including this frame that marks yet another transition in the scene:
The staging – Tank in the foreground, others behind him and the sickly smiles on their faces – they’re clearly caricatures – all point towards two plays at power. The white people want the black man to entertain them, the black man is about to take advantage of racial stereotypes to bring his audience down a peg.
Watch how their faces start to fall:
It’s a great scene made greater by Dassin’s editing choices. There is no continuity editing here – or at least very little of it. Meaning that, Dassin rarely in this sequence cuts on anyone’s action. Instead he just bridges the audio from shot-to-shot and cuts to entirely new positions. In one sense, continuity editing is rendered useless by shooting into the distorted surface, but the odd rhythm and strategy of the cutting also adds another layer of surrealism and creeping dread.
If Tank here is distorted to look menacing, his audience is distorted to look like the buffoons they are. It’s a wonderfully warped lampooning, and the change from the very first image above – level camera, classic framing, to the second two – low-angle camera, background foreshadowing what’s to come, to the remaining – fun-house mirrors, is smartly structured slope of stereotypes.