Thursday, May 3, 2018

Spit Take

Just saw that Jules Dassin's Uptight is streaming on Filmstruck and it feels like a perfect moment to revisit the movie about racial tensions and a traitor who sells out his friend to the cops and loses his soul during the boiling over unrest immediately following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

It belongs in conversation with Dassin's other great noirs with Julian Mayfield's character as desperate and haunted as Richard Widmark's at the end of Night and the City, footage as raw and viscerally dangerous as the riot in Brute Force and certainly as socially conscious as Thieves' Highway. A retelling of Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer (also the basis of John Ford's film) it concerns members of a black radical group rather than the Irish Republican Army and opens with actual footage of Dr. King's funeral.

The specter of King haunts the film and the feeling of urgency in the characters is contagious, stirring and ultimately sad knowing that none of the actions they're so desperately weighing will bring about the change they want and need in their lifetimes... but that's also part of why it's so great. If you've got Filmstruck check out the introduction from Barry Jenkins and dig the whole cast - Ruby Dee, Max Julien, Raymond St. Jacques, Frank Silvera and a really terrific turn by Roscoe Lee Browne - everybody's just doing great work.

Few days ago I was talking about Uptight thanks in part to this Catapult piece by Michael Gonzales on Uptight star Mayfield's novel The Long Night. It's out of print, but I found a reasonably priced one and purchased it.
If I dig it I'm looking for The Hit next. Had no idea these existed.

Another interesting race-relations book I read this week: I Spit On Your Graves by Boris Vian - a particularly nasty novel of sexual taboo and racial animus. It's the story of a southern black man who passes for white and is seeking revenge for the lynching of his younger brother who dared keep company with a white girl.

There's a lot to admire about the writing. With clean, un-fussy prose the twisted first-person account of someone bent on murder enjoying tormenting and debasing his prey is unperturbed and unflinchingly frank about ghastly deeds... like really, really gross stuff - so awful and unapologetic it was a huge bestseller upon initial publication in France.

Vian was a French novelist who wrote the book in two weeks after declaring he could and would write a best-seller. He published the book claiming to have translated it for an African American author named Vernon Sullivan who couldn't get it published in the States. After the book was banned and suits brought against the publisher Vian admitted that he was the author.

The book outsold all of his other titles including more race-baiting stuff under the Sullivan name, and in a twist too Hollywood for the movie studios, he died of a heart attack in his seat at a preview screening of the film version of J'irai cracher sur vos tombes after publicly disowning the movie and interrupting the proceedings in 1959 at the age of 39.

The English translation I have includes a note from the French "translator' Vian talking about American 'author' Sullivan's clear debts to James M. Cain and James Hadley Chase - it's a weird little note. Thanks to Kieran Shea for bringing the book to my attention. James Sallis wrote the introduction of the volume I read, but this piece by Scott Adlerberg at Crimereads sums up the weirdness of the thing pretty succinctly:

“'These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!' Perfect last words for a white Frenchman who pretended to be a black American writing about a country he’d never visited, upset that the actors portraying his characters didn’t seem real enough."

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