UP TIGHT: 1st Blaxploitation Movie was a Baaad Mutha...

UP TIGHT: 1st Blaxploitation Movie was a Baaad Mutha...

Before Shaft, before Super Fly, there was this.

Michael A. Gonzales

by Michael A. Gonzales, January 14, 2012

UP TIGHT: 1st Blaxploitation Movie was a Baaad Mutha...

On the set of Up Tight, 1968.

St. Jacques, replied, “Death is a fast teacher. They’ll learn, it’s clearer now.”  A few scenes later the entire Committee, led by soft-spoken Corbin (Dick Anthony Williams) meet-up inside their headquarters, an abandoned bowling alley. Film World magazine described the location as, “…something out of a Black Power nightmare.”

Two of the film’s stars, Julian Mayfield (Tank Williams) and Ruby Dee (Laurie), co-wrote the script with the director. Originally, Dassin sought Ruby’s husband actor/director Ossie Davis as a co-writer, but he was scheduled to be in Mexico shooting Sydney Pollack’s film Scalphunters starring Burt Lancaster. Having taken his wife to the meeting, Davis suggested Ruby would be just as good behind the typewriter and Dassin took his word.

“Ruby has a very strong, poetic talent,” Dassin told EBONY. “Her sense of images, her sense of sound is just marvelous. It was a very full collaboration.” Asked about the film’s title change from The Betrayal to Up Tight, Dee, who is also a Cleveland native, answered, “Jules was very pleased with when the new title was suggested. It was an uptight time. Being Black in America is an uptight situation. If you’re going to survive, you have to loosen-up.” Surprisingly, she had never seen the film prior to the 2008 screening in Brooklyn.

Dassin’s second script collaborator as well as the Up Tight’s star, was novelist, journalist and stage actor Julian Mayfield. The burly scribe had gotten the gig at the suggestion of co-star Frank Silva, whom he had met a few months before a writer’s conference at Fisk University. Mayfield had just returned to the country after being in exile in Ghana.

Although Up Tight was Mayfield’s first screenplay, his talent as a novelist on The Hit (1957) and The Long Night (1958) had been celebrated in Jet magazine years before the Dassin collaboration. “Julian Mayfield demonstrates with an almost disarming ease that he possesses narrative skill, a sense of dramatic unity and poetic feeling,” they wrote. Though partially forgotten since his death 1985, crime novelist and The Wire writer George Pelecanos reprinted Mayfield’s short story “The Last Days of Duncan Street” D.C. Noir 2: The Classics (Akashic Books) in 2008.

In their shared 1998 autobiography With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together, Dee wrote that director Dassin originally wanted James Earl Jones to play the intoxicated loser who betrays the Black militant organization, his woman, his best friend Johnny Wells and, in the end, himself.

Yet, while writing with Mayfield, the director realized he had the perfect “Tank” sitting next to him. “I don’t feel this will be a film we will be ashamed of,” Mayfield told a reporter in 1968. “Just seeing certain images will be so new, it will blow the minds of many people, Black and white, to see what is going on in this country.”

Working with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who shot On the Waterfront (1953) and The Pawnbroker (1963), making Up Tight a visually nightmarish film that was arty, brutal and beautiful. Dassin created a claustrophobic cinematic landscape that New York magazine critic Judith Crist described as, “teeming and pulsing one minute, stark in its solitudes and isolations the next.”

“But, it was about the music too,” says Darius James, author of That's Blaxploitation!: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude. “Booker T. & the MG’s doing ‘Time is Tight’ was the best. This was a few years before the big soul soundtracks like Shaft or Super Fly, and people loved it.”

According to journalist Rob Bowman, author of the fascinating book Soulville USA: The Story of Stax Records (1997), the group was commissioned after the film was completed. In preparation to learning the art of scoring films, bandleader Booker T. spent a week with Quincy Jones.

“Quincy was complimentary when I came to California,” Booker T. told Bowman. “He felt we were equals. He really made me feel good about the music, asking me for advice, for tips about making stuff funky.” The score was recorded in Paris, where Dassin edited the film, away from the prying eyes of studio executives who had threatened, according to Ruby Dee, to pull the film.

The Up Tight soundtrack spawned Booker T. & the MG’s second biggest single “Time is Tight;” heard in fragments throughout, the complete song serves as the film’s coda. Booker T. wanted to name the song after the film, but didn’t want to confuse the audience with the 1966 Stevie Wonder song of the same name. The single went to #7 on the R&B charts and #6 on the pop charts. In Soulville, writer Bowman says, “‘Time is Tight’ just might be Booker T & the MGs finest moment.”

Cultural critic Greg Tate recalls seeing the film at a drive-in when he was a kid. “The scene where the hood rains bottles on the cops is still a visceral childhood memory,” Tate explained, still excited

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