Sunday, May 7, 2017

Detroit 9000 (1973)

When black congress man Aubrey Clayton (Rudy Challenger) holds a not at all pre-planned, totally spontaneous fundraiser for his not at all pre-planned, totally spontaneous decision to run for governor, he and the other rich black people of Detroit (one supposes those are the only rich black people in the city too) suddenly find themselves victims of a short, sharp and very professional robbery.

The robbers are so effective, in fact, nobody is even able to discern their race(s), a particularly big problem in this already politically loaded case. As it goes, the whites talk about black on black crime and inside jobs, while the blacks suggest a conspiracy to hold their candidate down.

The poor bastard of a cop chosen to solve this mess is Lieutenant Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco), whose career has been shafted by his unwillingness to play politics. He’s more into crime solving, apparently. Danny is not very racist for a white cop in what is at least in part a blaxploitation flick, and tries to get by being honest and still somehow paying for the treatments of his wife who is incurable sick with something – being terribly racist and even more melodramatic seem to be part of her symptoms. Danny is going things alone at first, but another cop, black murder beat Sergeant Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) pushes himself into the investigation when he finds a corpse who very well might have been one of the robbers when still alive.

Danny doesn’t like Jesse much, in part – though one Danny probably wouldn’t admit to it – certainly because of his race, but also because Jesse is the police department’s black poster boy: he’s stylish, he was a famous athlete, and he knows how to play politics, all things the working stiff Danny doesn’t particularly like. Not surprisingly, Jesse reciprocates most of these feelings. But Jesse’s also a good cop, so working the case, they do develop a degree of mutual understanding (one wouldn’t go so far to call it friendship), though, as the ending will show, only a degree of it.

All this does make Arthur Marks’s Detroit 9000 sound like a rather worthy police procedural about mutual understanding; in practice, the film turns out to be rather more cynical and/or complex than that and certainly still a true exploitation movie, for the film does enjoy its shoot-outs a lot. As a matter of fact, there’s one about every ten minutes, usually ending in one or more people exploding a shower of very Shaw Brothers red blood capsules after lots of running and jumping has taken place. The final set piece of this sort is a long, long running gun battle between a bunch of cops and the gangsters that practically bursts with crazed energy.

Marks isn’t a terribly elegant director – rough and tumble is probably the best description to his approach – but it is exactly this rawness that makes the action work, providing it with a gripping and direct feel that fits a film so very much of its time and place as this one is particularly well. I’d be tempted to call his approach semi-documentarian, but I’m not terribly convinced Marks is doing any of this on purpose. One way or the other, the heated effect of the action stays the same.

Apart from that, the script (by Orville H. Hampton whose stuff is all over the place in genre and quality) is often just very interesting, adding clever, sometimes humane, sometimes cynical, little flourishes to character types that turn them into characters. My favourite bit of this sort of writing in the film is a flashback concerning Vonetta McGee’s Roby Harris that turns the “misused prostitute” trope into something more individual and personal that actually lets you look at a character in a crime and exploitation flick and have pity for her without turning her into a caricature. And this is by far not the only moment of this kind in the film.

I also found Detroit 9000’s treatment of its main characters very interesting. At first, the film keeps very close to Danny, showing us his pretty sad life and the start of his investigation, yet later increasingly shifts perspective over to Jesse, not just to demonstrate how Danny looks from the outside but to put the audience as much in Jesse’s shoes as in his. Despite certainly being made for the shoot-outs, the film does prefer to show more than one side of every argument, which actually makes its observations about race and the ways it interplays with class less like an internet rant and more like actual life.

As to the film’s actual racial politics, it goes for the obvious solution that a lot of people – white and black – are pretty damn horrible, poverty certainly doesn’t help in that regard, and that people in power or people who want to acquire power are hypocritical bastards. Which seems perfectly reasonable to me.

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