Which Way Is Up?

Considering the stratospheric celebrity Richard Pryor enjoyed by the late 1970s, the singularly profane comedian could afford some eccentric career moves, and ’77 Lina Wertmüller adaptation Which Way Is Up? has to be first among them in terms of sheer improbability. Made in collaboration with El Teatro Campesino — a theater troupe affiliated with Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers — Michael Schultz’s film transports Wertmüller’s politically-aware sex comedy The Seduction of Mimi to the contentious — and conspicuously black and Hispanic — gestalt of the mid-century American labor movement. If this is starting to sound a little too highbrow, make no mistake — it’s not. Pryor stars in triplicate (Nutty Professor-style!), his invariably over-the-top characters bedecked in an array of discerning physical extrema, including iron grey eyebrow adhesives and one of those windswept bouffants Al Sharpton used to wear in his James Brown-managing heyday. From comically discrete camera frames, this unruly mob of Pryors play out Freudian rivalries and tit-for-tat infidelities, effectively skewering union politics, consumerist dogma, and ‘70s New Age spiritualism in the process.

Dir. Michael Schultz, 1977, 35mm, 94 min.