What to Stream: “Top of the Heap,” a Tale of a Black Cop in Seventies D.C., Is a Crucial Work of Afrofuturism

A black police officer (Christopher St. John) faces racism in real life and walks on the moon in his fantasy life in the 1972 drama “Top of the Heap.” Photograph from Everett

There’s a dismayingly long list of active filmmakers who, to date, have made only one, great dramatic feature, including Billy Woodberry, Wendell B. Harris, Jr., Julie Dash, Zeinabu irene Davis, and Rachel Amodeo. It’s infuriating but unsurprising, given the prejudices at every level of the film industry, that the first four filmmakers on the list are black and the last three are women. To that list should be joined another name, Christopher St. John, whose one and only fiction feature, “Top of the Heap,” was released in 1972. (It’s streaming on Tubi and Amazon.) I was tipped off to it on Twitter this week, and it’s a major discovery—a genre-twisting tale that couches psychological and political furies in spectacularly bold imaginative flourishes.

St. John, who is black, is the film’s producer, writer, director, and star. In the lead role, as a Washington, D.C., police officer named George Lattimer, he gives himself the film’s first line of dialogue—“Bullshit!”—as part of his own parodically majestic introduction: in this opening scene, hard-hatted construction workers are attacking hippies amid the slop of an industrial mud puddle as George and other officers struggle to separate the combatants. George’s self-aggrandizing sense of heroism is swiftly mocked and knocked out of him when he’s thrown to the ground and a protester hits him in the face with a urine-filled water balloon. The immense emotional intricacy of the scene, and its chaotic violence, sets the tone for the entire movie.

George is unhappily married to Vi (Florence St. Peter), a stay-at-home mother who’s frustrated by his detachment from family life, and he is having an affair with a night-club singer (Paula Kelly). Vi accuses George of “playing the big cop,” punctuating the insult with the N-word—and George’s place in the city’s black community is at the crux of the movie. By choice, George works the graveyard shift, with his partner Bobby (Leonard Kuras), who’s white, and who’s warmheartedly cantankerous and casually corrupt (shaking down a strip-club owner, stealing cash from drug dealers). George, for his part, won’t take dirty money. He’s professionally ambitious despite knowing that his quest for promotion to sergeant is being thwarted by his white captain (John Alderson) and by the department at large. When he conducts a drug bust, the two suspects, who are also black, taunt him. (One calls him “Mr. Black Pig.”) In one of the film’s most extraordinary scenes, set on a city bus, a confrontation with a black passenger who threatens the driver leads to George being mistakenly stopped by a white officer, who, as George is visibly aware, is looking for a pretext to shoot him.

George is tainted and tormented by the violence that’s an inextricable part of police life. His form of corruption isn’t venal, as Bobby’s is; it’s brutal. With his badge, George says, “I can do any goddam thing I want,” which means grievously beating up a drug dealer and throwing his weight around in a night club where he starts a fight that involves nothing amusing or playful—it’s frighteningly brutal, with the gouging of eyes, kidney punches, and kicks to the body that lead to physical and psychic damage. The gratifications of violence also traumatize and exhaust him, all the more so with his awareness that what he’s doing, as a black man who is part of a mainly white force and a white-run country, is merely “to fight the Man’s war.” His long-range concern, which weighs on him daily, is whether to stay on the force; his immediate emotional crisis, however, is focussed on the recent death of his mother and his conflict over whether to attend the funeral, in his home town of Waltersville, in rural Alabama.

George’s vast ambition—and his sense of self-worth, however frustrated by professional conflicts and domestic pressures—plays out in his elaborate fantasy life, which St. John dramatizes in astoundingly extensive sequences that are centered on George’s Walter Mitty-like absorption in his imagined counterlife as an astronaut training for a mission to the moon. This lunar-fantasy subplot begins with George, in a space-training jumpsuit, signing in to the nasa training-room log book (titled “Top of the Heap”), and it progresses to an elaborate, giddy moon walk, replete with such oddities as the planting of an upside-down flag, Bobby tossing a hot dog onto the lunar surface after being unable to eat it because of his helmet, and George stumbling into a crater. It also involves sardonically distorted and politically pointed versions of the space program’s publicity machine—a press conference where George describes his training as “isolation, like waiting at the mailbox for your welfare check”; a police pursuit of him in a parking lot where he’s wearing his space suit and helmet; an anti-violence speech that he gives in front of an American flag festooned with a skull and crossbones; a hectic ticker-tape parade in Waltersville; and a mock-apocalyptic lunar self-sacrifice.

These extended and extravagant outer-space elements and their earthly phantasmagoria turn “Top of the Heap” into a crucial work of Afrofuturism—and, just as in the work of Sun Ra, whose assertions that “Space Is the Place” acutely suggest the failings of Earth for black people, St. John’s visionary depictions of George’s nasa fantasies evoke radical rejections of the few paths that are open to George in his terrestrial life. Their cartoonish but deadly-earnest whimsy is tangled up with the other aspects of George’s imaginary life, including erotic ones (the movie is filled with George’s symbolically zany soft-core fantasies, as well as some muscular sexual gymnastics) and a sequence set in Waltersville, one of the most haunting instances of cinematic Surrealism I’ve seen in a while. He finds the town’s streets deserted, demands respect for having walked on the moon (a brick wall with a giant Western Union telegram is involved), and achieves a mystical, metaphysical reunion with his late mother by way of sinuously gliding images (thanks to the cinematographer, Richard A. Kelley), set to a varied and catchy jazz-centric score by the trombonist and composer J. J. Johnson.

No less than in the films of Alain Resnais, “Top of the Heap” also brings its protagonist’s inner life to the screen by way of ingenious, nearly subliminal flashes of memory (the editor is Michael Pozen) that break through the surface of the action to depict the depths of a mind in torment. The opening water-balloon humiliation recurs when he sees a hippie-styled woman with an American flag on the seat of her pants; Bobby’s talk of money troubles reminds him of Vi’s own complaints about his meagre earnings; and, as he talks with Vi about quitting the force, images of the racist insults and violent confrontations that he endures riffle through his mind like a deck of cards.

St. John also graces the film with a fine-grained range of idiosyncratic and resonant behavioral touches. George’s girlfriend (her name is never spoken) mellifluously echoes, to her own guitar accompaniment, George’s bitter recriminations. A retired officer named Tim (played by Patrick McVey with a hard-bitten folksiness that fuses Jimmy Stewart and Jim Backus) delivers poignant reflections on old age: I’m “so damn lonely I can hear my teeth decay.” An aggrieved cabdriver (Allen Garfield) apologizes for a violent outburst with unabated violence. A strange moon-walk rehearsal pivots on a secretary’s missing pencil, and George is surprised to find, in the family kitchen, a jar of Tang.

There’s also a weirdly apt, paranoid echo of Nixonian obsession (with the impersonator Richard M. Dixon in a small but memorable role)In short, the teeming artistic inventiveness, emotional frenzy, and political critique that St. John brings to what could have been a conventional genre story should have catapulted him to the forefront of filmmaking. “Top of the Heap” did screen at the Berlin Film Festival and was a nominee for the grand prize (which Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Canterbury Tales” won). It was reviewed in the Times respectfully but unenthusiastically, and not at all in The New Yorker. In 2013, the programmer Floyd Webb told Ben Sachs, in the Chicago Reader, what happened next, when St. John faced a dispute with two writers claiming credit: “The Writers Guild shut the film down, took away its right to be distributed. They never took [St. John] to court, but the film was shut down—and basically, Chris was shut down as a filmmaker. Now he was known in Hollywood as a troublemaker because he had done all the wrong things.” 

Hollywood in the nineteen-seventies was filled with white male directors who stirred up maelstroms of trouble and yet were exalted—and financed. For St. John, it was one strike and you’re out; he hasn’t directed another dramatic feature to date.

Richard Brody