“I Forgot Something”: Community and Survival in “Uptight”

In The Informer and Uptight, both main characters display great guilt at their respective betrayals of friends and subsequent destruction of community.  Yet, The Informer’s ending of religious absolution and penitence is changed significantly in the ending of Uptight in which Tank receives no absolution and symbolically dies where he stood up to white oppression.  This major change is an important adaptation in the meta-narratives of both films; whereas The Informer ends with Gypo dying, but achieving forgiveness and exclaiming Frankie’s name in joy, suggesting a kind of mend between the two and the community, Uptight ends with Tank being shot, falling, and symbolically being downtrodden by the rubble he used to work with, suggesting an unresolved break in the community, as well as the continued debates of violence or peaceful means of protest.  With its nihilistic, more dour ending, Uptight shows that while there are similarities between the two films and they reference towards movements and events across the Atlantic, each group cannot compare itself to the other, also seen in Transatlantic.

Even thought Gypo mentions several times that he has fallen on hard times and doesn’t have much money, “Uptight” makes a point to show the desperation of Tank as well as other members of his community, most notably Laurie played  by Ruby Dee.  By piling up these external pressures upon Tank, Dassin and the writers suggest that Tank’s betrayal is the only way for him to attempt to get by, although it means separating himself from his community by killing Johnny.  The character of Daisy also represents this breaking of community, whose work as a police informant splits himself between membership with Johnny, Tank, and their community and the police force, as well as first introducing the idea of ratting out Johnny to the police.  This dilemma haunts Tank throughout the film, as he is already fighting to survive before he must hide from his own community because of his betrayal.  Once he turns Johnny in and he is murdered by the police, Tank goes on a quick downward spiral, tortured by his treason against his people and his quest for survival.  His own search for refuge and forgiveness echoes broader black concerns at the time, such as social belonging and upward progress.  The scene of the black Vietnam veterans echoes the growing tension of the black community, both against the oppressive white majority and also among themselves in their desire for successful protest.  Tank’s later scene with BG also refers back to this impossibility for the black man to survive in this increasingly hostile world.  When Tank begs “I got no place to go,” and BG only responds, “Then die!” this both foreshadows Tank’s own death after his betrayal excises him from the black community and also shows that it is perhaps preferable to die than to live within the place under the oppression of the white majority forces.  Once Tank is finally confronted in the steel mill, he is shot and killed in the same place where he worked for years, trapped toiling away and unable to resist prejudice and mistreatment.  Even when he did originally lash out, it caused him to get in trouble with the police, leading him to alcoholism, preventing him from helping Johnny.  This endless circle of oppression shows the bleak determinism of the black experience in the 1960’s: one can live in a system of oppression or die trying to escape.

Despite its basic description as a remake of reimagining of “The Informer,” “Uptight” and its world show a much more complex social setting, with the inner community of African Americans in the film already split early within the film on issues such as the most effective way to protest.  The more depressing ending of Dassin’s film captures the difficulty of black life immediately after the assassination of MLK and the idea of peaceful protest: either suffering or dying trying to function outside the system, Uptight‘s complex and difficult ending shows the fragile ideas of community and the elusive survival of everyday life under oppression.

2 Replies to ““I Forgot Something”: Community and Survival in “Uptight””

  1. Thanks so much for this.
    Perhaps it is because so much has changed in the last 100 years but it seems to me the class missed the weight of what prostitution meant in Irish society. Yes, I agree with the class that the changes Ford made to his cousin’s novel considerably alters the history and substance of the novel. However, if you do not see Gypo’s desperation then you are missing a significant aspect of the film. Pre-martial sex, especially female fornication, would have been viewed as deeply problematic. Even now, female sexuality within Catholic society is confined in specific boundaries. Whereas one cannot as readily trace when men have premarital sex, or sex with a partner that is not his wife, heterosexual women are always at risk of being “caught” because there is always a possibility of pregnancy. To this day, Catholic faith teaches against the use of birth control (even amongst married couples) and against abortion. Now go back 100 years. What would it have meant for an Irish Catholic woman fornicating for money? The shame. The desperation of going against your faith, your community. Think of the scene in the whore house. Gypo gives money to the woman who is still trying to hold on to some of her dignity but he neglects to do the same for Katy, even though it is for Katy that he became an informer. That’s the desperation Gypo embodies. Wanting to save his girl from shame and sin. While we see something similar in UpTight, Laurie is not as much of an outcast in black American society as Katy for selling her body. In the black neighborhood, everyone is selling something to make ends meet. Plus, there is the history of selling African American bodies there as well.

  2. Attempting to surviving while separated from your community and separating from your community in order to survive both fail in these two films. I think you point out the dilemma that society places on both Tank and Gypo nicely: they have both fallen on hard times and, since they are separated from their communities, one of the only viable paths for their survival is to betray their communities. I think it is correct to blame the societal structures that create this situation. Yet these communities, namely the militant African-American organization and the IRA, are not blameless either. For one, Gypo was kicked out of the IRA for not killing a man. The choices in front of him were absurd: kill a man or be kicked out of the IRA. On the other hand, Tank is kicked out of the group for attacking a white co-worker who harassed African-Americans. That kind of militancy was being advocated for strongly after King’s death, namely by the revolutionary group he was kicked out of. His dismissal seems hypocritical. While society creates the dilemma, these revolutionary groups unfairly put two men in these horrible situations. I must acknowledge that society may have influenced these militant groups to take such harsh measures, but their decisions to excise people from the community has a dangerous effect that shouldn’t just be cast aside by society’s impact on the situation.

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