The Forgotten Film That Paved The Way For This Year’s Oscars ContendersRoundup
tags: film, African American history, McCarthyism, Black Panther Party, Black Culture, Jules Dassin, Blacklist
Rebecca Prime is the associate editor of Film Quarterly and author of Hollywood Exiles in Europe: the Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture. She was named a 2020 Motion Picture Academy Film Scholar to support her current book project on the making of "Uptight!."
Some of the films with the most Oscar buzz this year, including “Judas and the Black Messiah,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and the documentary “MLK/FBI,” spotlight the FBI’s Cold War-era Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) and its efforts to discredit and destroy political groups and individuals it perceived as a threat.
These films chronicle the bureau’s long-standing obsession with the civil rights movement, which reached a new fervor in the spring of 1968. In a March 1968 memo, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover laid out COINTELPRO’s strategy for squashing a possible “Black revolution,” which included preventing the rise of a “messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hoover delivers this command directly to a roomful of FBI agents. The result: the assassination of Fred Hampton, the young and charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, gunned down in his bed by the FBI and the Chicago police in December 1969.
But one story that has yet to be told is what happened when Hollywood itself was on the receiving end of the FBI’s mission to suppress black nationalism. The history of the struggle to make what would be the first feature film to address the Black Power Movement reveals how big a threat the FBI considered Hollywood to be.
Early in 1968, Paramount approached director Jules Dassin with the idea of remaking “The Informer” (1935), John Ford’s Oscar-winning drama about Irish revolutionaries. Dassin had been blacklisted in the 1950s for his onetime Communist Party membership and had rebuilt his career in Europe, where his hits included “Rififi” and the Oscar-nominated “Never on Sunday.” Eager for a chance to work in Hollywood again and develop a film about the country’s racism problem, Dassin countered by proposing a remake focused on the Black Panthers. To his great surprise, Paramount accepted.
That a major Hollywood studio was willing to finance and distribute a film by a blacklisted director about Black militants speaks to Hollywood’s desperation at the time. The old genres that had kept the studio system humming for decades were faltering, as were profits. Studio executives were desperate for projects that could attract a younger, counterculture-oriented audience. As one contemporary commentator noted, “The business executives who invest money in films have decided that there are enough angry Black people and scared White people to fill a lot of theaters.”
Dassin, a 57-year-old White Jewish New York native who had lived abroad for the previous 15 years, knew he couldn’t understand the Black experience in the United States. He enlisted Black actress Ruby Dee and novelist Julian Mayfield to help him rewrite his first draft of the screenplay (he would also cast both in lead roles). In addition to reworking most of the dialogue for authenticity, Dee and Mayfield brought a perspective shaped by years of civil rights activism. As Mayfield explained, they wanted to “show militants, not as screaming and shouting, but to present a serious argument for revolution in this country.” The at times uneasy collaboration between Dassin, Dee and Mayfield produced a story that explored divisions between integrationists and black nationalists in the Black ghetto of Cleveland. To reflect these tensions, Dee christened the film “Uptight!”
Dassin, Dee and Mayfield were all subject to extensive surveillance even before the film’s production because of their political activism. Dassin, a former member of the Communist Party, had been active in numerous left-wing organizations in Hollywood before his blacklisting in 1952. Dee, a friend of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, had long been active in civil rights organizations and emceed the March on Washington along with her husband, actor and writer Ossie Davis. Mayfield’s radical politics had placed him on the FBI’s watch list even before his flight to Ghana, where he lived in exile from 1961 to 1966.
Yet it wasn’t until a crew member alerted the local FBI office in Cleveland to the film’s “dangerous and subversive” subject matter that the bureau sprang into action. Armed with a copy of the script and additional — if unsubstantiated — charges that the production was paying $2,000 a day to the local Black Panther chapter for “protection” (some of which was allegedly being used to buy weapons), the FBI devised a plan to sabotage the production.