Christopher St. John was once a chiseled and charismatic screen presence, running up the ranks of the acting world. By the early 1970s, he had acted with the Yale Repertory Theater and The Actors Studio, snagged a major role in Gordon Park’s “Shaft,” and was even prized for his performances in soft-core porn flicks. Then he made 1972’s “Top of the Heap,” and Hollywood closed its doors.
The film—written, directed by, and starring St. John himself—recounts the maddening experiences of a black cop in Washington, D.C. in a style that hits all the tropes of the blaxploitation form while simultaneously setting itself apart from its contemporaries.
True, the film’s protagonist is George Lattimer, a tough guy with a great Afro who shoots up bad guys, confronts racial prejudice, beds a blonde nurse, and has psychedelic sex with his mistress—no different from any other blaxploitation hero.
But George is no cartoon. His stressful life is falling apart around him, and his emotional turmoil is clear. There is a long list of failures. He is passed over for promotions at work, and is ridiculed by the criminals he chases on the street because of his race. His teenage daughter experiments with drugs, he misses his mother’s funeral, and his wife and mistress are manipulative. His frustration first manifests itself in acts of aggression and then in outright surrealist fantasy: George runs through jungles, reunites with his dead mother, dons a spacesuit for NASA’s moon launch, and has a parade thrown in his honor, with Richard Nixon cheering him on.
These surrealist breaks are original and entertaining, though the plot suffers from the resulting lack of continuity. Jump cuts between dream sequences become increasingly frequent, and by the end the narrative dissolves itself into a series of strange vignettes. The film is clearly a product of its time, but remains unlike almost any other film of its genre.
“Top of the Heap” aims to describe the soul of a blaxploitation star rather than his deeds. George’s troubled emotional state is always at the forefront, lingering just above the depressing knowledge that a black American walking on the moon couldn’t be anything but a ridiculous delusion.
While the film had success at the box office and won critical praise along with an entry in 1972’s Berlin Film Festival, St. John clashed with producers over his unconventional art-house techniques and ran into legal trouble with the Writer’s Guild. The film’s distribution was severely curtailed, and the process’s frustrations led St. John to step away from a promising career in Hollywood.
As a result of its troubled past, showings of “Top of the Heap” are especially difficult to come by in the United States. Seating sold out in advance when it played this past Sunday at the Black Cinema House as part of Floyd Webb’s “Return of Blacklight Cinema” series, although the film will be screened again on November 7 at Chatham 14 Theaters. The screenings are a personal victory for Webb, who has been trying to show the film since he started the Blacklight Film Festival in 1982, but only recently received permission from the director.
In a discussion with the audience after Sunday’s screening, Webb pointed out that “Top of the Heap” is a uniquely self-aware piece of entertainment: from its harsh spotlight on the job of a black policeman to its family drama, the film is an exploration of George’s psyche that goes beyond the simplistic stereotypes and racial politics of the time.
“In making a blaxploitation film, [Christopher St. John] kind of subverted the form, and took it in a whole other direction,” said Webb. “Here, he has a family, he’s being a father. In other blaxploitation films, you just didn’t see it.”
Though “Top Of The Heap” never had wide recognition because of its limited release, it’s a good thing that St. John chose to subvert the conventions of the form. Many of its more simplistic features—its costumes, characters—feel dated for a contemporary audience, perhaps necessary concessions to Hollywood. On the other hand, George’s struggles as a cop and as a father could just as easily be reshot in the present.
Nevertheless, the crossover between camp and surrealism makes for a fun, powerful film. Many people undoubtedly fantasize about being a blaxploitation star. With “Top Of The Heap,” Christopher St. John gave us a blaxploitation star who fantasizes about being anyone else.