The most surprising thing about Which Way Is Up? (1977) is that the titular question is taken so seriously. What at first glimpse seems a throwaway title for a sex farce actually cuts to the heart of race in America. Michael Schultz’s ragged, sincere film asks what it means for minorities to "move up" in a society dependent upon an expanding gulf between winners and losers. Shit runs downhill, our national mythos goes, so one has got to move up if one is to do the shitting and stay clean.
Richard Pryor plays Leroy Jones, a sexually frustrated orange picker who literally falls into a conspicuous position within the labor movement. He’s promptly laid off and run off to LA by a cabal of white dudes identifiable by their glistening rings. There he’s able to rejoin the syndicate as a house painter and gradually "moves up" from rags to middle management. His overlords shuffle him back to the orange groves where he’s put in charge of his former work buddies and struggles to keep his second family a secret from the wife he left behind.
As satire of exploitation and privilege, the film boasts inspired gags, including a tour bus of white folks gawking at the "spiritual community" of farm workers, a teetering trailer, and a hilariously mournful bite of lobster. As a comedy of sexual mores, however, the material muddies its virtues by mining homo- and gynophobia for cheap laffs. Schultz and Pryor come close to successfully drawing parallels between economic and sexual potency, but whether or not their condemnation of Jones’ capitalist and patriarchal tendencies in the film’s closing minutes represents spiritual redemption or a too-late apologetic is an open question.