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Uptown Saturday Night

Warner Bros. // PG // January 13, 2004
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Gil Jawetz | posted January 13, 2004 | E-mail the Author

The 1970s produced a huge crop of films that have been categorized as blaxploitation, not all of which fit the bill. Sure, Superfly, Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song have all the pimped-out violence that the era is famous for, but a whole film festival worth of quirkier flicks also came out of that time as well. Uptown Saturday Night is one of the most well-remembered comedies of the time and even today the laid-back humor delivered by an amazing cast delivers.

Uptown Saturday Night is notable for the number of stars in the cast and the unique nature of their performances. The two main stars are Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby. For both actors this is an unusually gritty set of characters. Poitier, who also directed the film, obviously wanted to portray someone more urban and modest than the roles he is most known for: Proud, powerful stereotype-breakers in seminal civil rights-era films like In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Here he's a bumbling factory worker who lives for little pleasures in life like falling asleep in front of the TV and dancing in the living room with his wife (Rosalind Cash). Where Poitier's tremendous talent comes in handy is in mixing the comic and serious elements. He's capable of adding gravity to a scene or mugging for the camera and blends the two seamlessly. One sequence, where he's seen dreaming, shows the depth of his abilities: His facial expressions are funny and exaggerated while still somehow remaining subtle and telling. Poitier's command of broad comedy is as total as his talent for drama.

Cosby, of course most famous for his long-running family sitcom on CBS as well as the animated Fat Albert, is more of a jive talkin' trouble maker here, impressively different looking in a thick 'fro and beard. His "street" act is funny and bizarre especially when he tries to act tough, stating "I'm from off the corners!" Cosby is a true comic genius and even though this is far from a raucous performance, he's in his element.

The plot is simple enough that it's practically beside the point: Poitier's Steve is persuaded by Cosby's Wardell to visit a speakeasy-type nightclub called Madame Zenobia's, where the fellas get a chance to check out some foxy babes, funky music and basement gambling. The sequence at Zenobia's is really fun and different from what you might expect. Even though the film was made during a time of swinging kinkiness there's an innocence to the sequence. (The film is rated PG.) Partly that comes from Poitier's easy filmmaking style: As the guys explore the club it unravels slowly and loosely. Also the wide-eyed bumpkinness of Steve and Wardell makes the scene (and the film) extra endearing. They're out of their element (A bit of trickery and fast-talking from Wardell, which Cosby delivers flawlessly, is the only way the threadbare pair gets into the exclusive club.)

While in the club Steve is robbed of his wallet which, in a bit of plot silliness, contained a lottery ticket worth $50,000 (a hilariously small amount compared to today's mega jackpots.) The bulk of the rest of the movie involves the effort by these two friends to find the wallet. Along the way they meet a cavalcade of ridiculous supporting characters played by top black actors. Most notable are Richard Pryor, Roscoe Lee Browne, Flip Wilson and Harry Belafonte.

Pryor steals a short scene as a slick private detective Steve tries to hire to find the wallet. His jittery style and off-rhythm speech pattern make his shyster one of the best characters in the film. It's a shame there couldn't be more Pryor in the film but he makes an impression quickly. There's a paranoia that's striking considering Pryor's later history but there's also a self-deprecating loser vibe here. When he complains about his lack of romance ("Black detectives in the movies always got a woman!") he's hysterical but he's also the opposite of the smooth private dick.

The other great cameo is from Browne who plays a local politician who hides his Nixon portraits in favor of Malcolm X when black constituents come calling. He's of little use to Steve and Wardell's quest but he's a terrific spoof of glad-handing politicos who tell the voters what they think they want to hear and pander to their most obvious preferences. It's a great scene, thanks also to Paula Kelly as Leggy Peggy, a dealer at Zenobia's. The battle between the ghetto fabulous Peggy and Browne's uppity Congressman Lincoln (who also happens to be her husband) is great.

Belafonte ends up with a larger role as a Don Corleone-style gangster with an interest in picking Wardell and Steve's brains. This involves an entire plot revolving around dueling gangsters (including the excellent Calvin Lockhart) that isn't always interesting. Still, Belafonte's weird raspy performance is part-Brando mimic, part-minstrel show. He's doing weird comedy here and is fun to watch.

Another classic scene finds Steve and Wardell talking tough to a gangster played by Harold Nicholas (of the legendary tap dancing duo the Nicholas Brothers) and his huge bodyguard (George Reynolds) only to find themselves in a full-on rumble. Cosby and Poitier both work wonders with their boisterous attitudes and Nicholas and Reynolds are hilarious.

Surprisingly, Flip Wilson's role as a preacher doesn't give him much to do. The wild comedian's style isn't suited to the straight role and, other than his "no joy juice" speech, isn't interesting. The film also goes off track at the end, with a simplistic happy ending that doesn't make a lot of sense and doesn't really leave the viewer feeling fulfilled. Still, the performances of most of this nearly all-black cast and the relaxed style are classic.

The anamorphic widescreen video is acceptable but nothing spectacular. The colors are muted (as are most films from the era) and the image is a touch drab and grainy. Some scenes, like the Zenobia sequence, have colorful enough costumes and sets that they overcome the dreariness of the print and transfer but there also seems to be a touch of edge enhancement giving the image a bit of a mucky look. Not great but okay.

The Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is limited and a bit tough to make out at times. Music sounds funky enough but dialog tends to run soft occasionally and the English subtitles came in handy (Subs are also available in French and Spanish.)

The two main extras are a short documentary on the film (under 10 minutes) and a commentary track from USC professor Dr. Todd Boyd. The documentary features interviews with a bunch folks including James Earl Jones, film critic Armond White and the film's writer Richard Wesley. The list of interviewees on the package, however, seems inaccurate (there are extra names listed) and no cast members from the film are featured, but it's a nice piece that helps put the film into the context of the time it was made. The interviewees obviously all remember the film with fondness and it's good to hear a little about the production. One tidbit that surprised me was that First Artists, the production house that made the film, was a collaboration between artists like Poitier, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen with the intention of creating independently minded films with minimal studio interference. What's the equivalent today? Project Greenlight?

The commentary track is also informative and entertaining. He's obviously a huge Cosby fan and brings a lot of enthusiasm for the comedian's great performance, but he's also great when discussing cast members like Lockhart and Kelly, actors that haven't received a lot of attention in the years since the film came out but who are great nonetheless.

Uptown Saturday Night is the kind of film that people like to keep around. It's not Shakespeare but it's fun and light and it features some pretty wonderful performances. The finale may not be up to the quality of the rest of the film but overall the film does a great job of creating some memorable characters and giving some all-time great actors a chance to stretch their range. The pairing of Poitier and Cosby was an inspired starting point and together they bring out the best in each other.

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Highly Recommended

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