When the Center Doesn’t Hold

One thing that stuck with me from this week was when Heaney quoted Yeats in his piece for The Listener. That’s not the first time I’ve seen that particular Yeats poem, The Second Coming, used to describe periods of extreme change. Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem uses it to frame the disenchanted, lost youth of ‘the 67 Summer of Love and I believe it also informed the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I think the resonances of a second coming – the feelings of imminent, uncontrollable, violent change – frame our discussions of political protest both during the Troubles and the American Civil Rights movement very well.  There is a sense of confusion and loss and sadness that came with the change and seems to haunt that era and Uptight as well.  As we noted in class, 1968 felt like a fracturing of every effort towards change that activists had made up till then. The center was not holding and people were left with unredeemable circumstances and violence. I think that’s why Tank dies without redemption, unlike Gypo.  That isn’t to say that the circumstances Gypo encounters within The Informer aren’t violent too, but that attitudes had changed about activism and violent protest when Uptight was made.  Redemption was important for the audiences of the earlier film and is restorative, but backgrounded by the chaos of ‘68 and the world it seems to create, redemption is not possible and is potentially irreconcilable to the creators of Uptight – it’s the more accurate reflection of the state of their world.

We discussed in class how these two films have very different tenors and I think part of that is a result of who was making the films.  The Informer was made by an Irish American about the Irish whereas Uptight was made by Black activists about Black activism. It makes Tank’s character really interesting. Gypo can easily be read as a caricature, like the stage Irishman from the days of Synge.  I wonder how we are to read Tank then.  His desperation and subsequent turn to alcohol compounds throughout the movie as each new tragedy or misfortune befalls him, beginning with Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Does his descent, like his death, say something about the desperation and frustration of the time itself? Or does it seek to present a critique of the caricature Gypo posed in the original film?

As an aside, over the weekend I started watching Self Made, the Netflix show based on the life of  Madam C.J. Walker. The first episode details the beginnings of her company and a dramatization of some of the driving forces behind her ventures.  It really seemed to highlight some of the themes we were talking about with Color Struck about community, image, and belonging and made me think hard about how I phrased my question on colorism for class last Wednesday.  I think the show focuses a lot on the pain associated with colorism and its violent history, but with a main character that is less self-defeating than Hurston’s Emma.  If anyone gets the chance to watch (I haven’t watched much more, but it seems interesting), I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the way these themes are represented in the show, particularly after our discussion about drama and preservation.