It beggars belief that black filmmakers only started to secure a foothold at Hollywood's managerial level about 10 years ago, a full generation after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Behind this tardy post-Spike development lurks the bitter memory that the '70s boom in black filmmaking – for which blaxploitation was a glib, reductive misnomer – ended with an almost total lockout of black talent and concerns, and an almost willful neglect of black audiences that lasted until Lee showed up. It's all the more dispiriting when one recalls that in the Martian cultural landscape of 1971, Gordon Parks' crossover smash Shaft made MGM $15 million and Melvin Van Peebles' revolutionary no-budget indie Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song took in an astonishing $9 million. Their twin successes apparently offered a basis for long-term optimism.
Many of the movies that followed, however, came out of a plantation economy of white studio overseers and black hired help with no financial stake in the product (Richard Roundtree got a derisory $13,500 playing Shaft). Nonetheless, within these heavily circumscribed parameters, and in the teeth of deep hostility from white critics and black civic leaders, black audiences were at least discerned and, for better or worse, catered to with stories set along society's racial faultlines and often featuring degrees of political awareness and racial sophistication not only long since banished from Hollywood, but absent from a good many neo-blaxploitation movies, too.
Detroit 9000 fairly hums with blaxploitation's higher virtues. In the 1973 film, the pursuit of a gang of robbers – masked, so that no one knows their race – who shake down a black political fund-raising rally is the launch pad for a root-and-branch evisceration of political and legal corruption, police brutality and racial conflict between and within the factions operating on both sides of the law.
Lieutenant Danny Bassett (Alex Rocco) and Sergeant Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes) form an uneasy black-white partnership as they trek across a minefield of racial issues that threaten to tear the city apart and destroy their own careers. Their odyssey from City Hall to bordello anteroom, precinct house to dockside hideout, discloses endemic corruption and cynicism behind a facade of emollient racial rhetoric. Politicians are bent charlatans, ministers are horny hypocrites (Scatman Crothers, take a bow), and there's a proliferation of slap-in-the-face reality checks such as, “Not every black man is your brother.”
In a world so beset by decay and imminent collapse (check out the archetypal '70s Rust Belt locations), the straight-arrow Williams comes to wonder if Bassett, normally a by-the-book rough diamond, will finally succumb to the lure of graft in the effort to cure his crippled wife. All this political and ethical complexity comes wrapped in the finest, sleaziest kind of drive-in sugarcoating: car chases, gratuitous nudity (the film's sexual politics aren't quite Neanderthal, but neither are they progressive), blood bags, plus mackin' threads and Sly-style 'fros. You also get bleak Detroit cityscapes, superb pacing and, most pleasingly, an ambiguous ending in place of the glib wrap-up dictated by test-audiences these days. Back in '70s cinema, closure meant the factory was gone, along with your livelihood.
And so it was for that short-lived first high tide of engaged black filmmaking, with its budgetary constraints sometimes outweighed and outwitted by the compensatory liberties available to imagination on a low budget. After 1978, the money retreated, and soon no trace remained of the prodigal forebears except a dozen undeleted soundtrack albums. Today, Detroit 9000, which is being released by Miramax under Quentin Tarantino's banner, Rolling Thunder, stands as a healthy corrective to the image of blaxploitation as a genre thronging with sable-coated pimps and vengeful ex-hookers secreting razorblades in their brassieres. It properly belongs in the company of wised-up '70s urban-nightmare thrillers like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, The Laughing Policeman and Across 110th Street. Like them, it was probably despised by critics in 1973. Oh, that our shitty movies were as good today.