Reel Gems | Putney Swope (1969)



In honor of Black History Month, we will take a look back at significant, rarely-seen Black films that we think deserve to be re-introduced to contemporary audiences. Today’s film is the irreverent 1970 advertising classic, Putney Swope.

This offbeat comedy tells the story of Putney Swope, the only black man on the executive board of an advertising firm who is accidentally put in charge after the unexpected death of the chairman of the board. Each board member actually believed that he, himself, should be elected chairman, but the bylaws of the corporation prohibit voting for oneself, so each individual member voted his secret ballot for the person that no one else would vote for: Putney Swope.

Renaming the business “Truth and Soul, Inc.,” Swope replaces all but one of the white employees and insists they no longer accept business from companies that produce alcohol, war toys, or tobacco. The success of the business draws unwanted attention from the United States government, which considers it “a threat to the national security.”

Written and directed by Robert Downey, Sr., the film starring Arnold Johnson as Swope, is a comedy satirizing the advertising world, the portrayal of race in Hollywood films, the white power structure, and nature of corporate corruption.

Because Johnson had difficulty memorizing and saying his lines during the shoot, Downey developed a plan to dub in his own voice to replace Johnson’s line readings. The film has also been cited as inspiration for both Louis C.K. and Paul Thomas Anderson in their approach to filmmaking.

Check out the movie below: