Top of the Heap represented a big professional leap for actor Christopher St. John, seeing as how he had only four screen credits to his name previously, including a supporting role in Shaft (1971). St. John wrote, produced, directed, and stars in Top of the Heap, but he botches all four of his jobs over the course of the glossy but misguided crime drama. George Lattimore (St. John) is an African-American beat cop in Washington, D.C., who resents that racist superiors prevent him from moving up in the ranks. Meanwhile, civilians and crooks alike regard George as an Uncle Tom, and George’s marriage to Viola (Florence St. Peter) has turned bitter. Had St. John kept things simple with a racially changed character study, he could have made something meaningful. Unfortunately, he overreached. St. John unwisely gave his protagonist a long-suffering mistress, identified only as “Black Chick” (Paula Kelly), and it’s hard to root for a philanderer who abuses both the women in his life. Worse, St. John interspersed the movie with bizarre dream sequences, mostly showcasing two recurring tropes—in one, George imagines that he’s an astronaut, and in the other, George imagines that he’s a naked savage running through a jungle. (The jungle scenes climax with an eroticized vignette of George and a woman slathering each other with pieces of watermelon, after which George inexplicably yells, “Jambalaya!”) The hallucinations give Top of the Heap an incoherent quality, but even the dramatic scenes are confusing, as when George, in uniform, scares a vituperative cab driver (cameo player Allen Garfield) nearly to death. By the time the movie’s pointless bummer ending rolls around, it seems like unreasoning rage, rather than righteous indignation about racism, is the protagonist’s real problem. Not exactly, one presumes, the point the filmmaker wanted to make.
Top of the Heap: LAME