Sidney Poitier Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. - Essay

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sidney Poitier's new film, Uptown Saturday Night, is some less-structured, coherent kind of TV fare—a variety show, perhaps, a black Ed Sullivan Show or Dean Martin Comedy Hour. The plot has to do with an honest but poor man named Steve … who has stolen from him a lottery ticket which, a few days later, wins the million-dollar prize. Needless to say the fellow tries to get his ticket back, persisting in his search even when the ticket turns out to be in the possession of a bunch of gangsters.

Though this might sound like an action film, a thriller of some sort, it isn't. On the contrary, it's a series of character studies, cameos really, which are never anything more than vaguely connected either to the plot or each other. Even in the big chase scenes at the end, where Steve clings to the luggage rack of a car from which hoodlum Geechie Dan … is shooting at him, the camera work minimizes the action and accentuates the character acting. A close-up isolates Steve from his hazardous circumstances, dissipating any tension that might inhere in the situation in order to give Poitier a chance to do a bit more mugging.

[The] black comedians and character actors who get to do their shtick in the movie are Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Paula Kelly, Calvin Lockhart and Roscoe Lee Browne. Including the principals, that's a total of eight stars in this movie, or, as a little simple math will tell us, a new character every thirteen minutes. Obviously a script that machine-guns new roles at us like this is going to end up riddled to pieces. Not every role can score a hit either. Like all vignette comedy, the roles in this film are stereotypes…. When the stereotypes are upset or are played in unexpected ways, the results can be funny….

A few years ago when black films first began to be produced, it looked as if they would quickly choke on their own bile and die off as a genre. But that hasn't happened. If Uptown Saturday Night [is] any indication, it now seems more likely that the black film will die from blandness instead.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., in his review of "Uptown Saturday Night," in Commonweal (copyright © 1973 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CI, No. 3, October 18, 1973, p. 66.