Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: To kick off Black History Month, we’re looking back on genre films by unsung or underappreciated Black filmmakers.
We first see Top Of The Heap’s beat cop protagonist George Lattimer as he surveys a muddy brawl between construction workers and hippies. “Bullshit!” he snarls before the frame freezes on a low-angle shot of him in riot gear. A title card appears: “Produced, Written, Directed by and Starring Christopher St. John.” Almost immediately following this introduction, Lattimer is thrown to the ground and hit in the face with a piss balloon. It neatly encapsulates Lattimer’s damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t internal conflict. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he receives no respect from anyone: his family criticizes him for being absent, his superiors refuse to promote him because of his race, and the community hates him for being The Man. He’s pulled from all sides and logic dictates he can only take so much.
It’s understandable that audiences and executives alike assumed St. John’s first and only narrative feature was a typical Blaxploitation film. For one thing, there’s the premise—a renegade Black cop exposed to the ugly realities of the streets is “pushed too far.” Secondly, St. John was primarily known for his supporting role in Shaft. Top Of The Heap was also released by Fanfare Films, a distributor known for exploitation films, and their marketing definitely indicates a certain type of genre fare. (The poster has two taglines: “HIS RAGE WAS THE ILLNESS OF THE TIMES!” and “He was a violent man… trouble was—he also was a cop.”) While St. John delivers on the promise of a crime film, with some violence and nudity to boot, Top Of The Heap has more on its mind than cheap thrills. Instead, St. John offers a genre-bending, fantastical psychological thriller about a man who can never truly be free, either in the real world or in his mind, that has more in common with a European arthouse movie than an American B-picture.
In between scenes of Lattimer on the job or dealing with his messy personal life, St. John includes surreal sequences of his fantasy life where he’s a Black astronaut helping NASA stage a clumsy moon landing. These sequences are sometimes comedic (like when Lattimer-as-an-astronaut smokes a joint during a sham press conference) and occasionally erotic (Lattimer dreams that he and his mistress are Adam and Eve, cavorting in the jungle and smashing watermelon), but they never represent a true escape. Lattimer’s inner mind reflects the outer world, so even though he’s an astronaut in his fantasy life, he never gets to leave behind the unfair confines of Earth. He’s forced to stump for a space program that lies to the public and exploits his image. In a particular disquieting scene, Lattimer returns to his abandoned hometown where he demands respect for walking on the moon and then tearfully reunites with his recently dead mother. The two exchange no words but communicate through dance set to jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson’s eerie score. While these fantasy sequences correlate to Lattimer’s real-world struggle, it’s telling that St. John never emphasizes the connections. They merely flit through Top Of The Heap like the sudden interjections of a fractured mind.
What ultimately separates Top Of The Heap from its peers, however, is how seriously St. John approaches Lattimer’s self-loathing and rage. He bought into an American dream that has no place for him and, in process, sold his soul and alienated himself from everyone. He rages against the corrupt institutions that keep him at arm’s length but remains furious at himself for assimilating into them at all. “I can do any goddamn thing I want,” Lattimer frequently snarls, but he can only do so by wearing a uniform that poisons his self-worth and permanently isolates him from the world. Even then, he still gets stopped by a trigger-itching cop who doesn’t recognize one of his own, and he can only protect himself from the racial abuse and potential violence of a road-raging cab driver because of what he represents. Top Of The Heap received some renewed attention on Twitter this past summer, but any claims about it being prophetic or retrospectively relevant miss St. John’s point. His diagnosis of structural racism, and how it filters into every aspect of a person’s self-image, remains unfortunately timeless.
It’s dispiritingly ironic that St. John made a film partly about a Black cop whose superiors hinder his advancement only for the same thing to happen to him in the film industry. While Top Of The Heap screened at the Berlin Film Festival where it was well received, its life was cut short by the powers that be. According to Chicago programmer Floyd Webb, St. John was invited to screen the film at Cannes, but the studio kiboshed the idea, furious at the idea that he made an art picture instead of entertainment. When Top Of The Heap received a limited U.S. release, two writers claimed they worked on the film and didn’t receive credit. “The Writers Guild shut the film down, took away its right to be distributed,” says Webb. “Now [St. John] was known in Hollywood as a troublemaker because he had done all the wrong things.” Subsequently, St. John’s career never recovered, and though he continued to receive bit acting roles on TV, he never directed another movie again. While art often reflects life in the worst possible ways, St. John still made an ACAB text for the ages, an achievement that cements his legacy as a great American filmmaker cut down in his prime.