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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Across 110th Street (1972)

The first time I heard the title “Across 110th Street” was in the opening credits of “Jackie Brown.” I suspect this is true of many other people too. At first I figured Bobby Womack's soulful, sad theme song was a stand alone song but quickly learned it was from an older film. When “Across 110th Street” was first released, it was considered to be just another entry in the growing genre of blaxploitation. Yet the reviews were good, better than expected. Some critics went so far as to say “Across 110th Street” rose above the designation of "exploitation." The film's reputation is positive enough that I wondered if it was a good fit for this marathon. Yet I was really curious about “Across 110th Street” and knew now was the best time to watch it.

A routine exchange of drug money between the Harlem crime syndicates and the Mafia goes wrong. Three men – Jim Harris, Joe Logart, and Henry Jackson – break in, shoot all involved dead, and make off with the money. The men are hoping to use the cash to leave the slums, to give themselves new lives. The mob, meanwhile, is on their trail. Soon, each one is tracked down, paying for the crime they committed. A pair of New York cops, one black and one white, are also on the case, hoping to get to the thieves before the Mafia does.

Most films in the blaxploitation genre benefit from the gritty aesthetic of their inner city settings but they aren't exactly what you'd call “realistic.” In-between the exaggerated “street slang” dialogue and hyper-macho heroes bedding women and blowing up bad guys, it's clear the films are set in a world other then our own. “Across 110th Street,” on the other hand, actually strives for realism. The characters are more muted than colorful. The film seriously considers the hardships of black people living in Harlem, struggling to survive in a world that's against them. The criminals aren't super slick anti-heroes. Instead, they are either hardened goons or incompetent wannabes. Both types usually end up dead. “Across 110th Street” is closer to reality, a gritty crime thriller that doesn't leap into comic book silliness.

It's also an incredibly empathetic film. The script examines the motivations behind its criminal anti-heroes. Each one gets a speech devoted to what they hope to do with their stolen cash. When his girlfriend questions him about the heist, Paul Benjamin's Jim delivers a powerful tirade about what few other options he has. As a black, diabetic ex-con, he believes crime is his only option. Later, the more quiet Joe, played by Ed Bernard, recounts the robbery and how weak in the knees the violence made him. At the same time, he looks forward the hopeful future the cash can give him. What of Antonio Fargas' Henry Jackson? He takes the money, buys flashy clothes, and spends an evening in a brothel. Each man sees this pile of money as his escape from a short, brutish life.

While the thieves might be the unlikely heroes of the film, they aren't exactly the heroes either. For this is also a story about two cops, of different ages and colors, forced to work together. Anthony Quinn's Frank Mattelli is being forced into retirement due to his advancing age. He believes in old fashion police work, smacking around potential witnesses and taking pay-outs from the mob. His young, idealistic partner is Yaphet Kotto's William Pope. Pope does things by the book and believes in the ethics of police work. He resents Mattelli for judging him based on his skin color. Yet the two men develop a mutual respect for one another, in time. They work together well. That's right. “Across 110th Street” is another early example of the buddy cop genre, though a particularly grim example. Pope and Mattelli don't get a happy ending.

For that matter, nobody gets a happy ending in “Across 110th Street.” Some contemporary critics chastised the film for its violence. People are cut down by machine gun fire but not in a clean, movie-style way. Instead, people bleed, struggle, gasps for breath, and die ugly. On their quest to find the thieves, the mob enforcer brutally beats two of Jim's friends. Both beatings are extended and graphic. The conclusion features a character going on a violent spree through the streets of Harlem. But it's not a cathartic release. Instead, it's painted as self-destructive. That the guy absorbs a dozen bullets on the way down doesn't help. Death in “Across 110th Street” isn't pretty.

The nuance and pathos does elevate “Across 110th Street” above most other blaxploitation films, even if its setting, funky soundtrack, and explicit violence still debatably categorizes it as “exploitation.” (That Bobby Womack theme song is still great, by the way.) This is a movie I'm really glad I had a chance to see and surely one of the best films I'll watch for this series. For its commitment to realism, strong performances, and empathetic writing, “Across 110th Street” emerges as one of the best examples of the genre. It's a powerful crime film as much about the environment crimes are committed in and the motivations behind them as the acts themselves. [9/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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