The Uptown Hortons: Perceptions of Urban White Poverty in a Radical Chicago

Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood has no lack of film history. In the first decades of the 20th century, silent film pioneers Essanay Studios called Uptown home, with stages that hosted the likes of their young star Charlie Chaplin. The Uptown Theatre, a grand 46,000 square-foot Balaban and Katz movie palace, opened in 1925. Along the lakefront in the northeastern corner of the neighbourhood, Edgewater Beach Hotel and Apartments often served as the preferred quarters for visiting Hollywood stars through most of the first half of the century. Uptown’s diverse urban landscape, crisscrossing transit routes, and easy access to downtown Chicago also made for ideal film locations. In the final cut of Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler uses Uptown as something in-between a cameo and supporting role. Certainly the mise-en-scéne of the concluding downtown riot sequence steals the show. Yet we would have never met our yellow-dressed heroine without Wexler’s early interest in building an Uptown subplot. John Cassellis’s encounter with the neighbourhood, as seen in both its limited form on the final cut and a more expansive vision excised in the editing room, reflects a complex perception of race, urban geography, and community. In building a portion of his narrative in Uptown, Haskell Wexler worked within an established left-liberal perception of urban white Appalachian migrant poverty. Such a perception, in Medium Cool as in related political contexts, revealed the possibilities and limitations of liberal preconceptions and ideals in an era of emergent radicalism. Ultimately, the final cut includes a circumscribed liberalism, while the more radical story in Uptown surfaces only in outtakes.

The Uptown neighbourhood sits about seven miles north of Chicago’s downtown Loop. At the time of filming Medium Cool, most people drew its boundaries around a one-square mile area that hugged Lake Michigan. About 70,000 people lived there, housed in a mix of residences that included small units in medium-sized apartment buildings, larger lakefront condominiums and co-ops, two-flat apartments, and a few grand single-family homes. In 1968, the blocks in central Uptown were among the most densely-populated in Chicago, with many residents newly arrived to what Uptown resident Studs Terkel called Chicago’s ‘great port of entry’. For much of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, low-income white migrants from Appalachia and the South were the most visible and commented upon population of the neighbourhood. By the 1970s Uptown had evolved into that rarest of Chicago neighbourhoods with notable racial and economic diversity. In truth, this diversity was a manifestation of a protracted and ongoing battle to redevelop and gentrify the lakefront neighbourhood.

Social, cultural, and political forces with mainstream liberal outlooks projected notions of exoticised whiteness upon southern and Appalachian whites in Uptown in the postwar years. Mid-century liberalism is best identified in efforts to reform existing social, political, and economic structures in the pursuit of equality and opportunity. While liberalism held sway over the political world, especially in northern urban centres such as Chicago, the reformist notions had come under attack from both the right and the emergent radical left. Liberalism particularly informed the way that outsiders viewed Uptown. The neighbourhood attracted liberal poverty workers, community organisers, and sociologists all intent on interpreting and making use of what they perceived as a pre-modern or anti-modern white demographic lodged in the middle of one of the world’s most modern cities. The poor white population joined a small number of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and American Indians in Uptown to create what was, by Chicago standards, a multiracial neighbourhood. The middle-class and elite Uptown establishment sought to contain and manage this demographic reality. They perceived a neighbourhood in decline. Unable to limit the growth of the low-income population, they sought to make use of Uptown’s racial diversity in presenting the area as worthy of urban renewal. Such mid-century venerations of urban heterogeneity allowed for relatively straightforward (and stereotypical) romanticised presentations of Latin, American Indian, and Asian-American cultures. Enlisting white southern and Appalachian culture in redevelopment proved much more difficult. Middle-class and elite Uptown whites were more likely to pathologise southern and Appalachian cultural behaviours and seek to minimise Uptown’s growing reputation as ‘Hillbilly Harlem’.

By the dawn of the 1960s, a new generation of social scientists and policy makers had become interested in the pockets of poverty that persisted even as the overall national economy boomed. Foremost among these areas were northern industrial cities and rural Appalachia. In this regard, Uptown was both Appalachian and urban and thus served as a unique beacon to those analysing poverty. Despite dozens of surveys, studies, and dissertations emerging from Uptown field work, this new generation of poverty workers displayed an appreciation for southern and Appalachian culture only a degree more sympathetic than urban renewal advocates. Much of their analyses led back to a criticism of cultural and social behaviour that they believed perpetuated poverty. The federal War on Poverty initiated by the Johnson administration had roots and influences from both the urban renewal impulse and the discovery of poverty. Massive infusions of cash flowed from Washington to cities, where neighbourhood-level ‘urban progress centres’ formed in seven Chicago communities, including Uptown, to address the social and economic needs of low-income residents on the local level. Managers of this social service approach did not have a much better record regarding authentic concern of Uptown’s poor whites than those considering the problem before them. War on Poverty liberals mostly avoided and even fought to minimise structural critiques of economic disparity. Social and political activism had little place in the War on Poverty despite a rhetoric of ‘community action’. Such was not the case for the leftist community organisers who temporarily made Uptown home in the latter half of the 1960s. Activists from the Students for a Democratic Society-affiliated Jobs or Income Now (JOIN) viewed poor Uptown as a potential revolutionary force. The idealised ‘interracial movement of the poor’ envisioned by JOIN certainly made room for low-income Appalachian and southern whites. However, even though these activists positioned themselves in opposition to liberal reformers, they were still susceptible to projecting simplistic and stereotypical assumptions onto poor Uptown whites. Before the JOIN student movement fizzled in 1967, the organisers had some success in confronting landlord abuse, police brutality, and unrepresentative War on Poverty programs, often in solidarity with a small but dedicated set of poor permanent Uptown residents. This was the social, political, and symbolic environment of Uptown that Haskell Wexler and his crew entered in 1968. The poor southern and Appalachian white population had been misunderstood, appropriated, and exploited, as well as romanticised, politicised, and partly mobilised. In its final cut, Medium Cool presented a mix of all but the emerging political mobilisation.

Haskell Wexler seemed destined to make one of the defining films of the late 1960s set in Chicago. He was born in Chicago in 1922 into a wealthy family. His father was a major player in real estate who owned air rights for considerable tracts of railroad land in central Chicago. Haskell’s brother, Jerrold, went into the family business and amassed considerable wealth as a financier of high-rise developments.[1] Wexler’s uncle, Samuel Bloomfield, likewise enjoyed financial success as the owner of one of the nation’s largest restaurant suppliers. It was Samuel Bloomfield’s son Michael who played the scorching lead guitar that ushered Bob Dylan into the electric era in 1965, soon after a thankless gig on Broadway in Uptown. Three years later, Michael Bloomfield provided the soundtrack to his cousin’s major studio directorial debut.

While the film’s Uptown subplot was ultimately diminished in the final cut, what remained nevertheless was more than trivial. The scenes with the Hortons and their neighbourhood conform to an outsider’s gaze at an exotic, oppressed other, but one that is non-threatening to the ostensibly liberal main characters. In contrast, the scene in the black ghetto is militant and uncomfortable for the outsiders and viewers. John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is the late-sixties modern man who would have little reason to venture to Uptown’s hard streets, unless he was chasing a lead about a sensational crime. We can assume that downtown Chicago’s Playboy Lounge would appeal to him a great deal more than any of Uptown’s beer-and-shot honkytonks. Yet the drama of his personal and professional lives create an opportunity for an exploration of Uptown other-worldliness. With his career wrecked, he casts about in the simmering heat of Chicago’s summer of 1968, where he becomes first emotionally and then romantically involved with Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a poor West Virginia migrant in Uptown. Cassellis initially visits Uptown in order to return a basket containing a homing pigeon, just before he is terminated by the news station. The pigeon belongs to Eileen’s twelve-year old son Harold, played by a non-actor and actual poor West Virginia migrant living in Uptown named Harold Blankenship.

Eileen’s is not the only Chicago ‘slum’ apartment that Cassellis finds himself in, of course. One of the most impactful scenes of the film brings the newsman and his soundman to the black ‘ghetto’. This section is rife with revolutionary tension and expressions of starkly differing worldviews. The viewer goes through a range of emotions built on concern for the white interlopers’ safety, sympathy with the black freedom struggle, and self-conscious reactions to black truth-telling. When the militants stare directly through the screen, it is never clear who they are lecturing: Cassellis, Wexler, or us. Cassellis’s experience on the opposite side of town in the heart of low-income Uptown – given in the film as 4444 N. Clifton – unfolds in a manner inverse of that of his visit to the neighbourhood of the black militants. He and Gus are allowed to roam free in the streets, alleys, and staircases of Chicago’s majority-white ghetto, whereas they are accosted at every turn in the black ghetto. In the latter, a young man threatens Gus and Cassellis as they exit a convenience store – and he was not an actor, but an actual street corner guardian unaware of the film being shot. In Uptown, however, the only threat is the potential damage done to the news station car, as a horde of local kids playfully crawl on the vehicle and ignore Gus’s calls for respect. Cassellis follows Eileen into her apartment unchallenged, where she is alone and vulnerable. Unlike black Chicago, there is no manifestation of cultural consciousness in Wexler’s Uptown. Furthermore, the Uptown’s racial diversity is virtually silenced, resulting in what appears to be a white neighbourhood more than anything. Whereas Cassellis remains a foreigner in the black neighbourhood, he builds a connection to white Uptown. Indeed, he becomes something of a surrogate father to Harold as his relationship with Eileen deepens. The prospect of a similar emotional and physical relationship for Cassellis in black Chicago would have been just short of unthinkable.

The Hortons’ background and current situation slowly unfolds as Wexler depicts them as rootless and oppressed, yet intelligent and likeable. The script offers three versions of the father’s location. He is “in Vietnam” (according to Harold’s response to one of Uptown’s ubiquitous social workers); he has ‘left’ the family (as told to Cassellis by Harold); or he is simply ‘dead’ (in a confession by Eileen during a romantic moment with Casellis). While some reviewers and critics interpreted these explanations to conclude that the father had been killed in Vietnam, Wexler retained the inconsistencies as a way to accentuate the unreliability of the film’s own narrative. [2] Regardless of the father’s fate, the Horton family acts as a stand-in for liberal and even progressive middle-class white assumptions about Uptown’s low-income residents. They are pious but unchurched. Harold is a victim of overcrowded and poorly managed schools. Eileen holds a decent job (at, fittingly, a television manufacturer) but sends most of her pay back to family in West Virginia. Circumstances have torn the nuclear family asunder. This depiction of the Hortons’ situation reflects mid-century liberal and left-liberal notions about the sources and effects of poverty, especially that of white urban Appalachian migrants. The traditional and apparently supportive institutions of family and church are absent from Chicago, related instead as gauzy memories of the rural mountains. Harold, and eventually Eileen, are literally lost in the city. Uptown is not a community, but instead merely a collection of deteriorating buildings and anonymous transient neighbours. Social workers from the local War on Poverty ‘urban progress center’ would have agreed. Similarly, notions of urban white Appalachian dysfunction and dis-organisation attracted idealistic, leftist, outside student organisers who sought to create a poor white flank of the ‘interracial movement of the poor’.

The romantic relationship between Cassellis and Eileen pushes the plot to incorporate the protests and police riot. Harold reacts to seeing his mother and Cassellis kiss by running away. The next morning, a panicked Eileen takes the El downtown to search for Harold in places he is known to roam. The actual protests and police reactions unfold in the foreground and background as the actress plays the part. Wexler’s crew captures the mêlée near the Grant Park band shell, when the Chicago Police charged protestors amidst a tangle of overturned benches and a haze of teargas. Eileen looks shocked as she cautiously bends down to gain a better look at a bloodied protestor. One of Wexler’s sound men, who had experienced combat zones, recalled that he had never been so terrified in his life. If the camera had panned a few yards it may have recorded a sprawled and bloodied protestor named Rennie Davis, soon to be on federal trial as one of the Chicago 8, and who was perhaps the most notable of the student radicals who had moved to Uptown to organise the likes of the Wexler’s characters. [3]

Viewers may easily dismiss the Uptown storyline as a convenient plot mechanism to somehow place a bystander in the protests and riots. Yet the casting, filming, and editing process – if not the final product – revealed an invaluable insight into the poverty, community dynamics, and cultural identity that defined Uptown in the late 1960s. Medium Cool would be incomplete if not for Wexler’s desire to engage Uptown’s low-income population as he understood it. Wexler’s interest in the plight of poor whites was no accident. Although Wexler had few contacts within Uptown before 1968, he was familiar with the poverty of white southerners and Appalachians more generally. His first film was a commission for the anniversary of a textile mill in Opelika, Alabama, owned by a friend of his father. The mill proprietor despised the final product, as Wexler focused primarily on the social condition of mill workers instead of the economic and technical virtues of the facility. [4] Wexler shot portions of other projects in the South and Appalachia, including a documentary about the Highlander Folk School, an activist training ground in Tennessee that he fervently supported. His involvement in the filming and production of In the Heat of the Night (1967) brought to his mind strong thoughts about the portrayal of social themes in general, and low-income southern whites in particular. When interviewed in early 1968 about his plans after a tremendous two-year run as cinematographer of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and In the Heat of the Night, Wexler dismissed the latter. He described the film as “a fake sociological script, with little understanding of today’s South. I resent films that talk about subjects I’m interested in and pretend to be on the good side but are superficial”. Years later, he reflected on his attraction to the story of low-income white southerners. “Poor American whites have never been presented in a film with respect. There is a great dignity … an aspect of our country that has not been appreciated enough”. [5]

A pastoral perspective on white poverty dominates Wexler’s depiction of the Hortons and their surroundings. Wexler infused the flashback scenes of Harold with his father back in West Virginia with warm light and innocent expressions of community and virtue. Harold’s father, acting as a church deacon on his day off from the coal mines, baptises his wife in a pond in the midst of a lush pasture and a cluster of beaming church members. The scene dissolves into the congregation sitting in their small chapel, singing a hymn lead by Deacon Horton. The singing is raw, full-throated, and transcendent. The pastoral backstory of Uptown’s downtrodden is not afforded to the black militants who push back against the detached gaze of Cassellis and Gus, even though it would have been likely that, as with the Hortons, they may have only been one or two generations removed from the rural South. As such, the depiction of the alienation and tragedy for Uptown’s poor whites stands in contrast to that of the militant African-Americans.

Wexler’s immediate obstacle to incorporating Uptown’s low-income Appalachian white community was that he had very few contacts in the neighbourhood. To Wexler’s rescue came Studs Terkel, the legendary Chicago media personality, raconteur, interviewer, and author. Terkel had known Wexler as a teenager, and maintained ties to the members of the Wexler family who moved in and out of Terkel’s progressive cultural and political circles. Credited in the film as ‘Our Man in Chicago’, Terkel provided assistance that made some of the most memorable scenes of Medium Cool possible. He connected Wexler to the black arts activists who set the screen afire in the first half of the film. Terkel – a welcome white man in many black areas ever since his on-air veneration of singer Mahalia Jackson – accompanied the crew into the neighbourhood. Wexler claimed he could not have gone without his presence. [6]

Wexler’s crew was a conspicuous and vulnerable presence in Uptown, even if the final cut of the film depicted a docile population. On one of the first days of shooting on Clifton Avenue, someone fired several rifle shots from one of the six flats that lined the claustrophobic street. Fortuitously, a group of young southern white men appeared and offered to act as the film crew’s bodyguard – for a fee. The movie people agreed, and they relaxed at the prospect of safety ensured by their loyal toughs. Little to their knowledge, however, they were playing parts in a drama enacted by Uptown locals. The men who offered to act as bodyguards were the same ones who fired the rifle. The entire thing was a set-up. Wexler himself could not have written a more involved scene of interlocking notions of fact and fiction or performance and reality. [7]

It was in Uptown that Terkel’s expansive knowledge of Chicago made the biggest impact on production. Terkel became increasingly familiar with Uptown throughout the decade, going back to his role of emcee at the 1960 Uptown Folk Fair. Like Wexler, Terkel chronicled a voyage to the 1963 March on Washington, riding a train with civil rights activists and recording several radio interviews along the way. One interviewee was a Congress on Racial Equality staffer named Peggy Terry, an emerging radical who had grown up in poverty in Oklahoma and Kentucky. The two immediately became friends, and remained so after Terry moved to Uptown the next year to organise poor Appalachian and southern whites. When Wexler asked Terkel about filming, he immediately connected the director with Peggy Terry, by then a tested Uptown organiser.

Wexler’s casting and filming in Uptown needed Terry’s knowledge of the migrant community. The director specifically sought an ‘authentic’ Appalachian migrant to play the key part of young Harold Horton. Child actors who auditioned for the part were deemed too refined and ‘effete’ for the filmmaker’s vision. The solution was for Wexler and his crew to station themselves on Clifton in the heart of Uptown with a lode of cold sodas. They closely watched as children swarmed the conspicuous movie people, clamouring for one soda after the other and demanding candy. They asked one boy nearby, who already had his own drink, if he wanted one of their ice-cold Pepsis. The kid shot back, “I don’t want your damn soda!” The search for the Uptown local to play the part of Harold was over. Terry, of course, knew the family, which made the final casting even more possible. The Blankenships were her neighbours; they had migrated from West Virginia to Uptown in the mid-1960s. [8]

Terkel and Terry also recommended community organiser and Kentuckian Charles Geary for the part of Harold’s father. Geary was straight from central casting, a true life veteran of the coal mines and a part-time storefront preacher. Indeed, Terry later described him as a “professional hillbilly”. [9] Geary was born in 1929 in the tiny, isolated north-central Kentucky hamlet of Jugville. A son of a Pentecostal preacher and migrant labourer, Geary split time between Jugville, Louisville and Kentucky’s mining country as a child. He was engaged at 16 and joined the Army at 17. Geary was stationed in the Philippines at the close of World War II, and was eventually wounded during the Korean War. Desperate for employment upon his discharge, he found work as a seasonal construction labourer in northern Indiana. Geary then set his sights on Chicago, after hearing about the abundance of jobs there. He described his arrival in his slim 1970 autobiography, What I’m about Is People.

I got a ride from a salesman who told he’d been poor once, but now had a lot of money. Hearing him talk about the beautiful apartment buildings along Lake Michigan made me start dreaming of the wealth and possessions I wanted to have someday. Suddenly the man’s voice shattered my dream: “I’ll let you off here”. The car slowed. “Just walk a few blocks from the lake. That’s where all the hillbillies go when they get to the city”. Just who did he think he was, calling my [sic] “hillbilly?” He wasn’t such hot stuff. Yet, in a way, I knew he was right … When I got out of the car it was about nine o’clock at night. I didn’t know where to go. I had nothing but my suitcase and two pennies. It was the same old story – no food, no money, no place to stay. [10]

Geary bounced between day labour and other short-term employment. Ordained as a Pentecostal minister, he preached in storefront churches and aspired to open his own church in Uptown. A Democratic precinct worker offered him steadier work and a supply of food, and asked for Geary’s support of urban renewal in exchange. What Geary learned about the plan’s potential displacement combined with his sour labour experience to push the Kentuckian towards oppositional politics.

In 1966 the War on Poverty-funded Tri-Faith Employment Agency hired Geary as a field representative, seeking to take advantage of his widening contacts in Uptown. He became director of the agency in early 1967, and continued to push Tri-Faith to be more of a social action entity than one for social aid. CBS filmed a short documentary about Geary and Tri-Faith in 1968. The program aired the same night as intense media coverage of Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. The juxtaposition of the stories had a profound impact on Geary.

A strange thing happened as I watched it. It sort of inspired me, and I felt that it was partly up to me to pick up where Dr. King had left off, to rededicate myself to the ministry. I began thinking about Uptown. There were so many organisations – Indian, Spanish-speaking, block clubs, youth groups. I realised that if they could all fight together, everyone would have a better chance to succeed. [11]

Not long after, Studs Terkel introduced Geary to Haskell Wexler.

The final cut of Medium Cool left Geary with only two flashback scenes in West Virginia. The rest of the fictional Horton family, however, stole the show. Even the harshest critics of Medium Cool praised the acting of Verna Bloom and Harold Blankenship as the migrant Hortons. Bloom immersed herself in Uptown for weeks prior to filming, toting a tape recorder everywhere she went as a way to capture the challenging southern Appalachian accent. She was particularly attached to an Uptown woman named Jean, who humoured her research only as long as Bloom provided a steady supply of Jim Beam. The actress shopped and ate as a low-income Appalachian migrant would. She assembled her own wardrobe for the film from the local second-hand stores, and only applied make-up or styled her hair for the scene where Eileen accompanies Cassellis to a rock concert at Uptown’s Rainbo Ballroom. Her performance was so convincing that many assumed her to be an ‘indigenous’ amateur like Harold; the Massachusetts native worried that she would be type-cast as a southerner. [12] Critics heaped even more praise on the 13 year-old, actual West Virginian. A New York Times writer described Harold Blankenship’s work as the film’s most convincing performance, explaining that, “[he] has the stunted look of generations of deprivation in his physique, in his eyes, and in his profile that is as hard as hickory nut”. [13] The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times simply summarised his thoughts on Harold’s turn as, “something that has to be seen to be believed”. [14]

Wexler envisioned an even greater role for Uptown in Medium Cool than what materialised as the final cut, one that would have added complexity to Uptown and revealed a revolutionary potential more directly related to that in the black ghetto. The script called for a deeper character development for Eileen Horton. She comes in contact with the Uptown radical Peggy Terry, playing herself, and begins a gradual politicisation. Wexler filmed several scenes with Eileen, Terry, and African-American welfare rights activist ‘Big’ Dovie Coleman. In one unused scene, Eileen sips coffee with Peggy Terry at the organiser’s dining room table. Several of Terry’s radical posters are curled up before them, removed from the walls in preparation for a fresh coat of paint. Eileen quizzes Terry about the meanings of the slogans and images.

Eileen: Peggy, what’s that mean – that ‘black brother’ thing?
Peggy: Well that’s about a black guy who was shot down on the street, on the West Side. He is a brother, because the same thing happens to our young white guys here in this neighbourhood. Southern guys.
Eileen: Don’t you feel kinda funny – I mean, because he’s black?
Peggy: No. I think when people start gettin’ shot down together I think it’s about time we start to forget about color.

Terry unrolls a JOIN Community Union poster, which she plans to take with her to Resurrection City in Washington, for the Poor People’s Campaign. Terry invites Eileen on the trip. Eileen demurs, answering that she would not be able to take time off from work. Later, ‘Big’ Dovie joins the women. The organiser recounts her recent visit to Eileen’s home state of West Virginia. She describes how she organised unemployed miners around receiving full welfare and health benefits. Eileen is taken aback when Terry interjects that African-American Dovie was in Appalachia organising low-income whites. [15]

Medium Cool editor Paul Golding later told an interviewer about the difficulty he had in cutting the scenes with Terry. He specifically told of a lost scene that followed Terry and Eileen to a press conference for Jesse Jackson’s ‘Operation Breadbasket’ boycott movement. Wexler captures Terry and Eileen in the audience, as Jackson lets loose a stem-winder, bracketed by a gospel-inflected electric blues ensemble and a stirring rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ by a young vocalist. Terry, in her real life role as a Jackson ally, eventually stands behind the podium, largely obscured by the forest of microphones. She exclaims, “We got to learn to stick together, we gotta stop fightin’ each other. And that’s what I tell people ever’ day. We gotta stop fightin’ ’em. Black people don’t care if you love ’em, just quit kickin’ ’em and quit cutting off your own nose to spite your face”. The crowd erupts as she steps from the podium. [16]

In the end the editors did not deem the subplot of politicised Appalachians and southerners in Uptown to be good enough of a fit to justify the extra running time of an already lengthy film. The plot’s divergence to the black “militants,” however, remained. In the final cut, black radicalism remained while white and interracial Uptown radicalism disappeared. The two apartment scenes, in the black neighbourhood and in Uptown – the one that remained and the one that was cut, respectively – make this clear even when taking the cut scenes from Uptown in consideration. The black radicals confront both the fictional and actual camera, as they stand toe-to-toe with Gus and Cassellis and speak directly to the audience. The ‘militant’ apartment scene has a sense of authentic, simmering, and cohesive revolution. The Uptown radicalism that Wexler cut, as depicted in Peggy Terry’s apartment, is far different and much less dramatic. The women sit at a table and sip coffee, as Terry calmly and matter-of-factly explains to Eileen the tenets of interracial community organising. The two southerners – Terry and Eileen – seem to have little in common other than an accent and a low income. While the prospect of a black ‘Big’ Dovie organising a poor white mining community may have surprised many (including Eileen), the revelation was no revolution, at least in the way of the black militant scene.

If Peggy Terry would have appeared in the final cut of Medium Cool, it would have come at the zenith of the organiser’s prominence. Terry had been steadily emerging as a national figure in progressive politics since her time in Uptown. She met with Martin Luther King Jr. on several occasions going back to the late-1950s, whenever King sought council on taking his message to low-income southern whites. Just before his death, King named her to the steering council for the Poor People’s Campaign, and charged her with rallying support for the 1968 return to Washington among poor Appalachian migrant whites. With this new prominence, Terry appeared on the 13 June 1969 cover of Jet, and was the subject of a flattering six-page feature in the black-owned weekly magazine. In Chicago, her old CORE contacts provided entrŽe into community activism on the South and West Sides, as depicted in the cut scene from Medium Cool that followed her to Jesse Jackson’s ‘Operation Breadbasket’ event. When the new Peace and Freedom Party sought a vice presidential candidate to share the ticket with militant radical Eldridge Cleaver, it turned to Peggy Terry. [17] Terry’s organising efforts slowed due to health problems in the 1970s. By then, Studs Terkel had moved to Uptown, and his friendship with Terry persisted. Upon her death in 2004, Terkel provided a eulogy.

Chuck Geary’s film career went beyond his small flashback role as Harold Horton’s father. The “professional hillbilly” realised a pivotal part in Mike Gray’s landmark 1969 documentary American Revolution 2. Like Wexler’s crew, Gray found himself in the midst of the Democratic National Convention police riot. Once the violence subsided, he followed the story for several months to both the black ghetto and Uptown, in a curious real-life parallel to the partially real-life Medium Cool. American Revolution 2 gives us Geary in his populist-turned-radical best: sympathetically introducing Black Panthers, lecturing a small crowd of Appalachian whites about the interracial movement of the poor, laying thick-accented condemnations onto the police and landlords. Through the early 1970s, Geary forged a coalition with Jackson’s ‘Operation Breadbasket’ and spearheaded local opposition to a community college plan that would eventually displace thousands in Uptown. Yet police surveillance and fractures in Uptown’s militant Left weakened Geary’s momentum. After a quixotic run for city council, Geary soon moved back to Kentucky.

Geary was not the only Medium Cool amateur actor to find hard times before heading back south. Of the thousands of Studs Terkel’s interviews, one stands out as a poignant addendum to Medium Cool. Studs sat down with his tape recorder in Uptown just a few months after the release of the film, to interview one of the hundreds of ex-coal miners living in the neighbourhood. The middle-aged West Virginia native told Terkel about his tough life in the southern mountains, about his long walk to a tiny school, about his backbreaking mine work that he started as a teenager, and about the cruel company bosses, and the deaths and maiming he witnessed over the years. He told these poignant stories in the peculiar southern mountain accent: saying ‘it’ as ‘hit’ and ‘mines’ as ‘mans’. The man spoke in clipped sentences, and Terkel’s microphone picked up his shortness of breath – a doctor diagnosed him with black lung disease not long after his arrival in Chicago, an often fatal fibrosis caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Although most of the migrant’s story centred on the 1930s, his reflection on his life of the proceeding 40 years made the ultimate impact. Terkel chose to open the edited published version of the conversation with his correspondent’s plain but elegiac statement, “I’ve been in depression ever since I’ve been in the world”. [18] The man was Buddy Blankenship, the real-life father of Medium Cool’s ‘authentic’ child actor Harold Blankenship. Not long after his interview with Terkel, tragedy beyond “depression” visited the Blankenships. A family member shot and killed Buddy, mistaking him for a burglar. The accident devastated Harold’s mother, who eventually died after a battle with depression and alcoholism. The teenage Harold bounced between relatives in Chicago before relocating permanently to West Virginia. Paul Cronin’s astounding documentary Sooner or Later (2006) finds the adult Harold living a hardscrabble rural life. Harold Blankenship died in April 2019 three days short of his sixty-fourth birthday. An obituary lists four of his surviving children, including a son named Haskel. [19]

Imagining how a fuller depiction of Uptown and Eileen’s emerging radicalism may have impacted the overall message of Medium Cool is just that – a thought exercise that evokes the political and social contexts of late 1960s Chicago and America. Wexler filmed scenes that would have destabilised the generally passive depiction of Uptown that emerged in the final cut. In such scenes, with real-life Uptown radicals Peggy Terry and ‘Big’ Dovie Coleman, and with Eileen’s witness to Jesse Jackson’s jeremiad, the politicisation of urban white poverty would have emerged from leftist aspirations to dramatic representation. At the very least, Eileen’s presence at the downtown police riot may have been attributed to political action as opposed to depoliticised maternal concern. This expansive political story about Uptown, however, would have not only made the length of the film unwieldly, but may have also distracted or needlessly complicated Wexler’s specific narrative about media representation and the blurred lines between reality and fiction. The viewer of the final product is left with more questions than answers about Uptown and the Hortons. For example, there were many more poor white non-Appalachians in Chicago than Appalachian migrants that Wexler could have chosen as the basis for the romantic subplot. Onto these narrative gaps and vagaries the viewer is invited to project their own assumptions and uncertainties about urban Appalachian migrant poverty. In this regard, what looks like a poorly developed plotline may in fact be more of a sophisticated commentary on perception and perspective that aligns with the Haskell Wexler familiar to critics. In the end, after all, the camera is on you.

[1] “Jerrold Wexler, 68; Chicago Developer Who Built Empire,” New York Times, November 12, 1992.
[2] Director’s Commentary, Medium Cool, Criterion Collection DVD.
[3] “Verna Bloom among Chicago Rioters for ‘Medium Cool’ Role,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1969; Paul Cronin, Director. Look Out Haskell! It’s Real: The Making of Medium Cool (New York City: Cinema Guild, 2002), Uncut Edition, Part 2.
[4] Ernest Callenbach, Albert Johnson, and Haskell Wexler, “The Danger Is Seduction: An Interview with Haskell Wexler,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring 1968), 3-14.
[5] Callenbach, Johnson, and Wexler, “The Danger Is Seduction”; Director’s Commentary, Medium Cool, Criterion Collection DVD.
[6] Director’s Commentary, Medium Cool, Criterion Collection DVD.
[7] Story related to author by former Uptown resident wishing to remain anonymous, September 24, 2013.
[8] Cronin, Look Out Haskell! It’s Real, Uncut Version, Part 1.
[9] Handwritten caption of photograph of Geary in the Peggy Terry Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society, Madison.
[10] Charles Geary, What I’m About Is People (Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises, 1970), 1-28.
[11] Geary, What I’m About Is People, 57-58; “Day’s Highlights,” Chicago Tribune, April 9, 1968.
[12] “‘Medium’ with a Message: Wexler’s ‘Cool’ a Worried Message About the Mediums,’ Los Angeles Times, September 21, 1969; Cronin, Look Out Haskell! It’s Real, Uncut Version, Part 2.
[13] “Screen: Real Events of ’68 Seen in ‘Medium Cool'”. New York Times, August 28, 1969.
[14] “‘Medium’ with a Message”.
[15] Cronin, Look Out Haskell! It’s Real, Uncut Version, Part 2.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ruth B. Stein, “White Woman’s Drive to Aid Poor People: She Recruits for Poor Campaign,” Jet, June 13, 1968.
[18] Audio of Terkel’s interview with Blankenship available at Chicago History Museum, “Studs Terkel: Interviews for Hard Times;” published version in Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: The New Press, 1970), 173-177. Terkel also tells Blankenship’s story in West Virginia and Uptown in Studs Terkel, Studs Terkel’s Chicago (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 50-53.
[19] Obituary for Harold Blankenship (13 April 1955 – 10 April 2019), Fanning Funeral Homes,

About the Author

Devin Hunter

About the Author

Devin Hunter

Devin V. Hunter is an assistant professor of history at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he teaches Twentieth Century United States History and Public History. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the politics of cultural diversity in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood from the 1950s through the 1970s.View all posts by Devin Hunter →