Promoting I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in 1988, Steve James, who appeared as “Kung Fu Joe” in the blaxploitation spoof, commented: “I always hated that label ‘blaxploitation.’ I wondered, why couldn’t there just be films with black stars? You know, you’d go around the corner from a theater showing one of them, and there’d be Dirty Harry. And nobody was calling it ‘whitesploitation.’” Right on, Steve! So in February, I’ll take a look at ten films featuring black stars from a certain era.
Detroit 9000 (1973)
Directed by Arthur Marks
Written by Orville H. Hampton
Produced by Arthur Marks
Despite using formulas from just about every cop thriller you’ve ever seen, Detroit 9000 has a refreshing taste that’s difficult to resist. The first black themed film shot in Motown, Detroit 9000 was financed and produced by General Film Corporation, a B-movie distributor co-founded by Arthur Marks, who’d segued from Perry Mason episodes in the ’60s to drive-in features in the ’70s. Marks would make three highly entertaining pictures dubbed “blaxploitation” due to the racial complexion of their casts — Bucktown (1975), J.D.’s Revenge (1976) and Monkey Hustle (1976) — but Quentin Tarantino was so enamored by Detroit 9000 that he chose it for a theatrical and home video re-release in 1998 through his short lived retro distributor Rolling Thunder. Tarantino even devoted a track on the Jackie Brown CD soundtrack to a line of dialogue from the movie.
Ridiculously over the top — with a body count that keeps pace with the annual homicide figures for Detroit and cheeseball dialogue whenever men and women mix it up — Detroit 9000 has a pleasing familiarity more welcoming than worn out. A country cousin to Lethal Weapon, budget limitations reduce the pyrotechnics and give the audience room to chew over the racial complexities of a black cop struggling to identify with a white partner on a case where the racial profile of their suspects is political dynamite either way. The plot is both idiotic and irrelevant. What makes Detroit 9000 worth viewing are the performances, with Alex Rocco as an irascible Archie Bunker cop and a vivacious Vonetta McGee as the most wonderful archetype in the movies, the call girl with a conscience. Luchi De Jesus composed the pulse pounding music.
Trouble hits the Motor City when U.S. Congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challenger) returns home to announce his candidacy for governor at the “Hail Our Heroes” ball for the black community. In a crackerjack robbery, four masked thieves make off with Hale’s war chest of $400,000 in jewelry and cash contributions. Detroit PD puts its best cop on the case: Lt. Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco), who makes up for what he lacks in racial sensitivity with street savvy. Meanwhile, pro footballer turned homicide cop Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) investigates a dismembered body pulled out of the Detroit River. Running with a hunch that their cases are linked, Williams proposes they work together. Hesitant to the idea of a partner, Bassett is overruled by Captain Chalmers (Robert Phillips), an old friend Bassett accuses of taking his promotion.
Visiting his stressed out wife at Longview Sanitarium, Bassett is harangued for refusing to sacrifice his ethics to do a favor here or there for some cash. Unsure whether his enigmatic white partner is on the take or not, Williams works a tip that Congressman Hale’s right-hand man isn’t too thrilled about his pompous, self-serving boss running for governor and might have organized the robbery. Bassett has more luck with the manager of the brothel he frequents, who reveals that two out-of-town clients came in and aroused suspicion. Bassett & Williams suspect that the thieves must have had contact inside the cathouse and sure enough, professional lady of leisure Roby Harris (Vonetta McGee) warns her manager Ferdy (Herbert Jefferson Jr.) that the cops are on their trail. Shootouts, boat chases and double crosses ensue.
What do you say?