Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gordon's War (1973)

When Gordon Hudson (Paul Winfield) returns from the Vietnam War, he finds his wife dead of a drug overdose and his Harlem home overrun by its drug problem. After pushing around his wife's dealer, the delightfully named Big Pink (Nathan C. Heard), only leads to a group of Big Pink's business partners roughing up Gordon in turn, Gordon decides to solve Harlem's drug problem once and for all. He rounds up four of his old army buddies (played by Carl Lee, David Downing and Tony King) and declares war on the operations of Harlem's big player, Spanish Harry (Gilbert Lewis).

The group slowly work their way up through Harry's operation, harassing dealers and pimps and driving them out of town, disturbing the distribution of heroin. They're surprisingly successful too, so successful that not only Harry but also the examples of The Man he is working for, begin to get nervous and react.

Ossie Davis's Gordon's War is one of the more singular blaxploitation movies I've seen. One of the major differences between this and many other films of the genres is that Davis doesn't come to exploit black emancipation politics to make an action movie but attempts to exploit the action movie form to take a political stand dressed up as a revenge fantasy. It's no surprise coming from a man with Davis's background, and, if nothing else, makes for a nice change for the genre.

Of course, Gordon's War's message is a very simple one - drugs, brought in by white people with an interest in destroying any future hopes of African Americans, are destroying the black community and need to be mad to disappear, if need be with violence - and so easily enough fits into action movie structures. Consequently, the film doesn't play out very differently from other films of the vigilante genre, which is blessing and curse in one. On one hand, Davis doesn't walk into the trap of becoming preachy but on the other one, everything about Gordon's War seems just a bit thin. That impression isn't improved by the film's complete lack of characterisation: Gordon has a dead wife and is very dignified (he is played by the wonderful Paul Winfield, after all), Bee reads books, Roy has sex, and Otis has eyebrows. The film doesn't even bother to explain why his three friends are willingly helping Gordon in his dangerous crusade. Sure, we can theorize, but the film doesn't seem to care. In fact, the film doesn't seem at all to care about human emotions (even a major character death leaves only results in thirty seconds of emoting), character development, or motivations, so if one is looking for that sort of thing to - say - develop an emotional connection to a film, one is shit out of luck here.

In this regard, I also found it rather peculiar that we never actually see the film's drug dealers and pimps doing much drug dealing and pimping; it's rather difficult to share or even just understand the feelings of our vigilante heroes towards them when we only ever hear about their enemies' wicked ways but don't actually witness that much of them, except for their awe-inspiring taste in clothes. The damage they do is only shown in their absence - in a flophouse sequence and the sense of seeing a decaying community. I'm nearly tempted to suggest the film is actually about four Vietnam veterans randomly roughing up or killing people who they take for gangsters because they dress like gangsters, but that's not really what the film is about.

The film's strength - and this aspect of it can turn Gordon's War into a very gripping film if you can get yourself to care about a film that doesn't put any effort into making you care - lies in Davis's somewhat dry, detail-oriented direction that reaches for the documentarian. It's when the film shows us the flophouse, or just the daily life on the streets of Harlem when it actually comes to life, showing a care and emotional connection to Harlem as a place it never seems interested in building to its characters. His documentarian eye also stands Davis in good stead when it comes to staging action scenes, resulting in action that seems authentic and believable yet also tight and exciting enough.

As a whole, I'm just not sure what to make of Gordon's War, or rather, I have trouble understanding what Davis was thinking. Without a doubt, he knew enough about filmmaking to realize how little emotional heft his film packed, so I have to assume he left it out on purpose: as a Brechtian attempt at alienation? Out of loathing for emotionally manipulating his audience? To contrast his film against the melodramatic emotionality of other blaxploitation films? Damned if I know.

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