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Uptight (1968) is one of the most criminally underrated pictures of all time. This reimagining of Liam O’Flaherty’s novel The Informer is so close to the reality of Fred Hampton’s assassination, that would occur a year later, that it’s downright disturbing. Uptight and its depiction of Black militancy was deemed so authentic and dangerous that a special FBI squad was dispatched to observe, albeit discreetly, every stage of the film’s production.

Uptight is a collaboration between Jules Dassin, Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield. The three of them wrote the film together at the suggestion of Dee. Dassin, a celebrated auteur, would handle directing and producing duties while Julian Mayfield carried the film dramatically with his powerful starring performance as Tank, the man who sells out his friend for a thousand bucks. Unlike In The Heat Of The Night (1967), Uptight is not a white version of the Black struggle for equality. Even though Uptight also had a white director the film was made with equal input from Dee and Mayfield. Uptight is a film about the Black Revolution made in such a way as to carve out a place in the mainstream cinemas.

Uptight opens four days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder with the national Black community is a traumatized daze. A militant group has decided to rob a gun shop so as to arm themselves, but when a guard is shot a reward is offered for their capture. Tank, a two-time loser and drunk was supposed to be a part of the robbery and now finds himself on the outside of the Black radical community. Alone, rejected and hurting, Tank sells out his best friend for the reward.

The heart and soul of Uptight is Tank. It’s his journey that the film follows from reluctant radical to guilt ridden man with a death wish. Black Militancy and Black Pacifism are explored as each faction reacts to the ramifications of Tank’s actions. First and foremost Uptight is a character study. In fact the entire second half of the film follows Tank as guilt slowly eats away at him; as the Black Militancy group closes in on him for retribution.

Dassin takes full advantage of this structure by employing a neo-expressionistic style that, cinematographically, reflects a subjective experience. The first example of this is the spinning zoom-in on Juanita Moore from a balcony high above where her son, betrayed by Tank, has been gunned down by policeman. This harrowing camera move is replayed when Tank himself is shot off of a scaffold and plummets to his doom. The second instance occurs when a drunken, self-pitying Tank is accosted by a group of white people at a fun house. They jeer him, mockingly asking him about the Black Revolution. When Tank sarcastically replies with a rather bitter monologue, Dassin moves the scene into a house of mirrors. Faces and bodies are all distorted as Tank talks about the day the Revolution will come. It’s a grotesque scene full of white paranoia and Tank’s own disillusionment.

What is really remarkable about Uptight is that, despite formally being a character study, the film never comes out in favor of either militancy or pacifism. Dassin, Dee and Mayfield are critical of both revolutionary movements yet make space in the film for each side to plead out its case. The real focus is on how that division is what debilitates the revolution. Tank, who is committed to radicalism more out of friendship than ideology, represents what the filmmakers clearly perceive as the weakness in the movement; non-commitment and disunity.

Uptight was made in reaction to Dr. King’s murder and predicted Hampton’s assassination. And as much as Uptight is of its moment in history it is still relevant in the most terrifying ways. George Floyd’s murder was a wake up call to renew the discourse with this type of cinema; a cinema of social change, of outrage. Uptight is a beautiful work of cinema in every conceivable way and it must be seen.