Barry Shears’ brutal crime drama begins with an aerial shot, high over East Harlem. The camera tilts to let us catch a glimpse of Roosevelt Island before it comes to rest on a black Cadillac making its way uptown. An observant viewer will notice that we are now over Riverside Drive, on the other side of the island. The camera descends to street level. The car crosses 110th Street, the dividing line in the early 1970s between black and white, then makes a right turn onto 125th Street. Eventually we find ourselves inside a Harlem apartment, where we learn what was inside the suitcase we had noticed sitting on the front seat of the Cadillac, 300,000 dollars.
Five men, three black, and two white, count the money together, efficiently thumbing through stacks of tens and twenties. What we are witnessing is not interracial harmony, but interracial corruption. The white men, representatives of the Italian mob, and the black men, their local enforcers in Harlem, are dividing up the proceeds from the old “numbers” racket, the lottery before the state took it over in the 1980s. Black and white criminals have come together to extract money from the struggling black working-class, the people we noticed living in poverty on our drive up Riverside Drive through Harlem.
We near a knock on the door. Through the keyhole we notice two police officers, both black. “Does anybody here own a black Cadillac parked out in front of the hydrant?” one of them asks. The five men aren’t worried. “Give them a few twenties,” one of the Italians says, letting us know early in the film that the NYPD is on the take. But the two men aren’t police officers coming to get their cut of the numbers money. One of them, a man named Joe Logart, works in a laundry. The other, Jim Harris, is an ex-con out on parole. It’s a daring heist, two anonymous members of the black working-class, coming to take back what was theirs, the labor power stolen from them by organized crime. One of the mobsters reaches for his pistol. It’s a mistake. Jim Harris who has a machine gun, has no hesitation about using it. Harris and Logart massacre the five gangsters, and make their way out to their getaway car, an old Checker Cab driven by Henry Jackson, played by Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. After a clumsy escape, where they bump a street cleaner, wreck half the cars on the block, and kill two real cops, they’re home free.
Of course they’re not. The three men have just robbed the mob of 300,000 dollars and killed two cops. We all know how the movie will end, with Harris, Jackson and Logan in their graves. That shouldn’t surprise anybody. Everything else about Across 110th Street, however, at least from the perspective of 2015, seems to have come from a world as strange as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Don’t let the misleading Netflix page fool you. Yaphet Kotta, as the black Lieutenant Pope, a college graduate an a straight arrow, and the great Mexican actor Anthony Quinn, as the corrupt, racist Italian American Captain Mattelli, are the Across 110th Street’s biggest stars. But neither Pope nor Mattelli dominates the film. Rather, they are two more characters in a Darwinian world where everybody is out for himself, and everybody is out to get everybody else. 110th Street is not pro-police propaganda, copaganda. There is little or no moral difference between Mattelli and Doc, the head of the black mob from whom he takes bribes — but only “clean gambling money” —- or between Mattelli and and Nick D’Salvio, the savage Italian mobster who wants to find Jackson, Harris, and Logart before the police do.
Who will capture Harris, Jackson, and Logart first? The police, who will send them to Attica, or Doc and D’Salvio, who will make of them an example that will terrorize the rest of Harlem? It’s important to Doc and D’Salvio that Harris, Jackson and Logart die under slow torture instead of going to Attica. Mattelli, in turn, is a 55-year-old white man who has to prove he’s still in control of “the blacks,” the insecure representative of a white supremacy that had been rocked to its deepest core by the Civil Rights and black nationalist movements of the 1960s. Pope is an ambitious younger, black man who wants to make his mark, an example of the new black leadership class who have allied themselves with state in order to displace both the mob, and the white ethnic police unions. He’s a tough, straight-edged man who takes no grief from anybody, but, in the end, he’s not Across 110th’s Street most sympathetic character.
That honor would go to Jim Harris, played by Paul Benjamin. You’ll recognize him as one of the street corner guys from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Harris, a self-described “42-year old nigger ex-con,” is an anarchist and a nihilist. We don’t like him in spite of the way he slaughtered 5 gangsters in cold blood with an automatic weapon. We like him precisely because he slaughtered 5 gangsters in cold blood with an automatic weapon. Harris is the image of a black working-class that has finally had enough. Nobody will make him go back to jail, or take a dead-end job. Unlike Logart and Jackson, who die begging for their lives, Harris goes out in a blaze of glory, with all guns firing, killing cops, Italian and black mobsters as if they were stormtroopers on the Death Star. His final gesture, throwing a bag full of money off a roof to a playground full of school children just before he bleeds to death, is cinematic, anarchist poetry.
In the end, in spite of its many flaws – Barry Shears was mainly a TV director and it shows. –Across 110th Street is the kind of film Quentin Tarantino only wishes he could make, and probably ripped off trying. While it lacks the polish of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, it makes up for it by directly addressing the issues of crime, class, and race. It also makes me wonder. Surely the NYPD is every bit as much “on the take” in 2015 as it was in 1972. Tony Serpico is still in hiding, after all. Why don’t filmmakers tell these kinds of stories any more?