The 90 Years of Sidney Poitier Blogathon is an event celebrating the life and career of the actor, hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.
Uptown Saturday Night
There's no doubt about it: Sidney Poitier is a living legend. Before Denzel, Will, Eddie and Richard, there was Sidney, redefining what a black actor could do in a Hollywood film for a long time.
By the 70s, black cinema had established a niche and it slowly expanded. "Blaxploitation" may sound like a negative term (for years, I had thought it was), but the movies exemplified by this sub-genre, while trashy, were vibrant, empowering and had attitude to spare. In 1974, Poitier decided he wanted in on the fun.
Two years earlier, Poitier had made his directing debut with the Western Buck and the Preacher, with Harry Belafonte. Now they got together with rising TV star Bill Cosby for a crime comedy written by notable playwright Richard Wesley, Uptown Saturday Night. Poitier and Cosby would team up for two more movies in the 70s, Let's Do It Again and A Piece of the Action.
I've learned to appreciate blaxploitation films, formulaic as most of them were. I think Shaft and Super Fly would be hits today (yes, I know about the Shaft remake), while Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is such a singular reflection of its time and its culture that it almost transcends the sub-genre. Most blaxploitation flicks didn't want to do anything more than entertain, and that's totally cool.
USN was made during a time when it was still rare (well, rarer) to see black people free to be themselves on a big screen. I have no doubt it filled a wide gap at the box office. Black audiences of its day probably responded warmly to seeing so many talented black stars in one movie...
...but this movie sucked. I'm sorry. For a picture with so many funny people, it's almost painfully unfunny. I watched this with my pals John and Sue, and they agreed.
The premise is this: Poitier and Cosby, while hanging out in the local house of ill repute, are robbed, along with everyone else, by a group of armed thieves. Within Poitier's nicked wallet, however, is a winning lottery ticket (which we never see him buy). The two of them go on a citywide search for the thieves, which eventually leads them to the doorstep of an unrecognizable Belafonte, playing a Don Corleone-like gangster.
Wesley's screenplay meanders all over the place with little direction or focus. Characters come and go - Richard Pryor here, Flip Wilson there (his film debut) - that do little to further the plot, such as it is.
Poitier's direction is unimaginative. In one scene, for example, he and Cosby are accosted by thugs. The camera stays fixed in one position while the two of them move in and out of the frame, wrestling with their respective thugs. Poitier and Cosby want to be Redford and Newman, but the plot doesn't hold together well enough to be The Sting, no matter how many colorful characters they meet.
A brief word about Cosby. Watching him in a movie wasn't as painful as I had thought it might be (despite the thick and unruly beard he sports). He was a welcome part of my childhood for many years: a black celebrity with crossover appeal, yet one who never forgot his roots, who appeared to stand for something positive. I have too many good memories of watching him on television for them to be easily erased by the things they now say about him, the damning accusations leveled against him. Celebrity worship is a dangerous thing. We just don't know who these people really are behind their pretty smiles and good deeds.
There has been talk of a USN remake for years. As recently as 2013, Variety reported a screenplay rewrite meant to "fast-track" pre-production. Anchorman and The Big Short director Adam McKay would direct, with Will & Denzel to star. I'd love to see the two of them in a movie together, and USN can only be improved by a remake, as far as I'm concerned. It looks like it's ended up on the fast track to nowhere, though, at least for now.
Other films with Sidney Poitier:
A Raisin in the Sun
No Way Out