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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Top of the Heap (1972) review



Christopher St. John (George Lattimer), Florence St. Peter (Viola Lattimer), Paula Kelly (Black Chick), Leonard Kuras (Bobby Gelman), John Alderson (Captain Walsh), Patrick McVey (Tim Cassidy), Ji-Tu Cumbuku (drug dealer #1), Damu King (drug dealer #2)

Directed by Christopher St. John

"Damn, brotha', are you The Man, or somethin'?!"

The Short Version: Christopher St. John wrote, starred, produced and directed this unique, mesmerizingly metaphoric character study of a troubled black police officer attempting to get a handle on his home life, his job, and his humanity; and often making it worse in the process. If you go in expecting the usual black action tropes, you'll be disappointed. This isn't that sort of movie. St. John veers into those areas, but briefly; and even then, uses those scenarios to put the viewer inside the head of its lead character trying to make sense of his world.

George Lattimer is a frustrated D.C. cop struggling with turmoil within and without, attempting to juggle problems out on the street, on his job, and in his home all the while desiring, and dreaming to one day be at the Top of the Heap. 

Christopher St. John (SHAFT) turns in a stunning tour de force both in front of, and behind the camera in his first, and only directorial effort; a picture he also wrote and produced. His engrossing script concerns George Lattimer, a black D.C. cop vying for acceptance in an insane world, all the while trying to maintain his own sanity, and not doing a very job of it. He fails his exam for police sergeant, and is failing in his home life. He finds solace in dreams that often juxtapose his emotional state at that moment with where he'd like to be. Towards the end of the picture, George's real life intertwines with his fantasy one in which neither turn out to be all that different, not to mention tragically prophetic.

In TOP OF THE HEAP, the directors cornucopia of dream sequences propel the inner workings of our main character, George Lattimer. They take us back to his African roots, to a final moment with his mother he never got to have, and even to outer space. He always looks much younger, and with a goatee in these sequences. Incidentally, many of them deal with NASA and space flight. One key dream sequence just before he and his partner Bobby and Tim, his former Captain, are to take off, he receives a call that his mother has passed away. When Tim asks what the call was about, Lattimer states it was the wrong number. Throughout the movie he's reminded of his mother's death, and it's clear it weighs heavy on his conscious. 

One vision sees George wearing full astronaut garb while three police cars violently circle him signifying his job is holding him back. Another dream sequence has George laid up in hospital after a deadly space training accident. He explains he bailed before the machine exploded after a voice told him to do so. This feels like a reference to Robert Henry Lawrence, Jr., who would have been the first black astronaut had he not been killed in a flight training accident in 1967. A handful of scenes in the real world also have space iconography in them, too.

"All you care about is putting on that damn uniform and gun and playing the big nigger cop!" -- Viola Lattimer lets her husband know just how invisible he is at home... even when he's there.

Lattimer the man (or 'The Man'), is far from a perfect person. He's probably got more bad qualities than good, actually. The script goes to great lengths to make him a seriously flawed individual. He's a cop who formerly took bribes, smokes weed, cheats on his wife, and shows little interest in his nightclub singer mistress outside of having sex with her when it's clear HE means more to her than a mere fuck. Unfortunately, she's not free of faults, either with her steady diet of pills and pot. His teenage daughter is having sex and likewise doing drugs; and Lattimer is detached with his role as a father figure, too.

Chris St. John doesn't stop at simply building a uniquely complex main character -- he does the same with the rest of his cast, as well as the supporting players. It's remarkable to see a black themed movie with such a balanced approach to black-white relations as this one. It covers the stereotypes of conventional black action pictures, but remains an unconventional movie in the way it deals with its subject matter. As a cop, he expects a certain degree of respect, and gets very little of it. In a few instances, some of the white characters (particularly another cop from a different precinct during a bus ride debacle) fail to recognize him as a police officer. Astonishingly, the highest level of hatred towards him comes from other blacks.

This is represented to great effect when Lattimer busts two small time drug pushers enjoying some soul food and a little cocaine on the side. Pointing his gun at the two crooks after their bribery attempt fails, he tells them to put their hands on the wall. One of them refuses stating, "...Now if you shoot me, you gonna have to shoot me right in my face, Mr. Black Pig." Things nearly escalate when the man refuses to comply while calling him a "nigger", and "black ass pig". When Bobby enters, the two criminals show no resistance to him, a white man, putting them against the wall. The main drug dealer (played by BLACULAs Ji-Tu Cumbuku) looks disgusted at a fellow black man wearing the threads of 'The Man'. He sees Lattimer as a sell-out despite the fact he and his partner-in-crime are contributing to societal woes with their drugs.

What makes this sequence even more fascinating is just before Lattimer enters the room, the two crooks are having a conversation and one of them sarcastically states he forgot to go down to the unemployment office to get his check. His friend replies "How the hell you gonna collect some unemployment, baby, when you ain't ever had a J-O-B?" The significance is that Lattimer, for all his faults, has made something of himself. He has a good job (although he's frustrated with it), and a family (as fractured as it may be). It is ridiculous to think that bettering oneself is "selling out"; although in today's climate, this sort of attitude is primed for political posturing in an effort to grow the entitlement state. For the time in which the film was made, it's understandable why there would be such sentiments so soon after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

George has a faithful bond with his police partner Bobby and the elder, Tim Cassidy. The scenes they share are like two brothers and father son relationship respectively. These scenes are the ones where George seems the most content. These three men do not recognize color between them -- they are all individuals. They share food and drink together, and discuss personal matters together. This sort of male friendship between black and white was rarely seen at this time, and certainly not observed with this level of maturity.

In another case of life imitating art, Christopher St. John, to a degree, literally lived the character he played. According to news reports of the day, he tried out for the lead in SHAFT (1971), but lost to Richard Roundtree -- settling instead on a co-starring role. He then had a lot of trouble getting his movie made since blaxploitation was what the studios wanted and not some existential tragedy stocked full of symbolic dream sequences. The promotional campaign heightened what little action-thriller elements the film possessed, much to the directors dismay. He wasn't a fan of the violent, stereotypical black-themed action movies, and did remain true to his word in refusing to sell out to the studios for the sort of product they were demanding.

Just like the NASA symbolism discussed above, a lot of the striking imagery residing in the frames of Christopher St. John's movie is centered around the American flag. Like everything else in the film, there's a balance as to how it is presented; there's the upside down flag on the moon (signaling a nation in distress), and black military school kids play fighting with an American flag that strangely resembles the iconic Iwo Jima flag raising; the opening scene shows a group of protesters inexplicably beating each other up in a mud hole, and several of them tear a flag to pieces; then there's the woman wearing tight jeans with an American flag patch right on the ass of her pants! There are others, of course. 

There were a few times I said to myself, "What is he saying here?" I may be reading too much, or seeing things not intended, but this is how the film spoke to me. It's actually quite a brilliant movie, if a little rough around the edges in places. Still, it's a highly recommended piece of 70s cinema that is not at all like your typical black action picture that was extremely popular in the early part of that decade. It's SWEET SWEETBACK without the excessive sex; it's WATERMELON MAN without the comedy; and it's THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR without the militant atmosphere. Christopher St. John's stunning directorial debut dabbles in all three, but is ultimately a humanist story about mankind; particularly a black man in 1970s America. TOP OF THE HEAP deserves to be there, and to be seen by a wider audience.

This review is representative of the Code Red DVD.


Tommy Ross said...

AWESOME post! Never seen THAT one before, very cool.

venoms5 said...

I went into it blind not knowing quite what to expect and came away pleasantly surprised. It grew on me more the second time around.

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