Starring: Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte and Calvin Lockhart
Rated: PG Action/Comedy/Crime
One of the most hilarious films ever produced, Uptown Saturday Night is the story of two best friends, Steve Jackson (Sidney Poitier), a “square”, or tame, steel worker and Wardell Franklin (Bill Cosby), a “hip”, streetwise cab driver. Both are happily married and hardworking providers for their families. When Steve comments how he is doing nothing on his time off from his job, Wardell chides him for being too domesticated. Wardell quickly goads Steve to sneak out after their wives are sleep and visit “Madame Zenobia’s”, an exclusive club housed in a mansion he overheard one of his fares excitedly discussing with another passenger. However, entry into the mansion is contingent upon membership, for which Wardell produces a false letter of introduction. The letter is written on paper stolen from the employer of his wife, Irma (Ketty Lester).
The best friends feel positively jubilant experiencing the hospitality of Madame Zenobia (Lee Chamberlin) and the wealth of “the good life”, including dancing, visiting secret rooms that could hold “happiness” behind their closed doors, drinking fine liquors and gambling. Wardell matter-of-factly asks, after experiencing a winning streak led by Leggy Peggy (Paula Kelly), “How long y’all been down here? I been working for a living!” Yet great times are not meant to last and Madame Zenobia’s is held up by a group of disguised robbers. However, the leader, Silky Slim (Calvin Lockhart), has a unique, raspy, readily recognizable voice. Upon taking all items of value, the robbers exit the premises.
The next day, Steve and Wardell meet and discuss the responses of their wives to the events of the previous night. That evening, Steve speaks with his wife, Sarah (Rosalind Cash) and, while reading the newspaper, discovers that the lottery number that he has been playing for some time has fallen and the prize is $50,000. In the midst of their celebrating this unexpected windfall, Steve realizes that the ticket was in his wallet … that was stolen at Madame Zenobia’s!
What follows these two best friends in their attempts to retrieve the missing lottery ticket are action, comedy and drama. Starring many greats such as Harry Belafonte (as Geechie Dan Beauford) Flip Wilson (The Reverend), Richard Pryor (“Sharp Eye” Washington), Roscoe Lee Browne (Congressman Dudley Lincoln) and Harold Nicholas (as Little Seymour), Uptown Saturday Night, in just three months after its June release, was the third highest-grossing film of 1974. Sidney Poitier directed the film, which was a departure from other “Blaxploitation” films, such as Superfly, Coffy, The Mack and Cleopatra Jones, at that time. Even the six-minute soundtrack, produced and composed by Van McCoy, contains lines of Black empowerment and self-determination.
Poitier made a conscious effort not to portray Blacks as the negative stereotypes all too often promoted by the motion picture industry and media. He also presented the concept of double-consciousness, as espoused by W.E.B. DuBois in his autoethnography, The Souls of Black Folks, and Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem, “We Wear the Mask”.
Also showing this self-awareness of race is the scene featuring Browne as a conservative politician, Congressman Lincoln. The White secretary of Lincoln informs him that he had Black visitors in his lobby. Upon hearing this knowledge, Lincoln, who is also Black, removes his blazer, replacing it with an African-print dashiki. He also turns over his hanging picture of Richard Nixon, president of the United States. Its obverse side is revealed and features Malcolm X, the Black nationalist. Also, in this scene is a discussion between Lincoln and Leggy Peggy about use of “appropriate” vernacular with people of different backgrounds.
Because Uptown Saturday Night did so well, two more films, Let’s Do It Again (1975) and A Piece of the Action (1977) would follow. Though the characters and storylines are different, these three films are considered to comprise a trilogy due to the pairing of Cosby and Poitier. In the mid-1970s, there had been talks of creating a television show based upon Uptown Saturday Night but it did not come to fruition. In 2002, actor and hip-hop artist Will Smith bought the rights to the Uptown Saturday Night trilogy for film remakes that he hoped Denzel Washington and comedians, including his Bad Boys co-star, Martin Lawrence, would star. As of 2020, no remakes have been produced; however there are no worries … The originals are classic!