Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.
The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.
Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin carries the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.
Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.
Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.
p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.
p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.