Director: Mel Damski
Writer: Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg
Stars: James Woods, Yaphet Kotto, Alex Rocco, David Harris, Steven Keats, Larry Riley, Pam Grier, Rae Dawn Chong and Richard Bradford
Index: The First Thirty.
Pam Grier’s career began with the seventies, with 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and it kept her busy until 1977 with women in prison movies and blaxploitation flicks bringing her a level of exploitation stardom. Transitioning to respectable cinema, though, was a struggle.
She made eighteen features in a mere eight years from 1970 to 1977, many as the lead. In the next eight years, she made only five, none as the star and only one with a sizeable role. It isn’t this one, because she’s firmly kept in the background, as support for a supporting actor.
This was a TV movie and, if I hadn’t told you that, you’d figure it out within a few minutes, because it looks and feels like a TV movie and it only gets more like a TV movie as it goes. It’s unmistakably a TV movie, for all the good and bad that might suggest.
It starts out rather like Fort Apache, the Bronx with a couple of cops being murdered by black folk, this time in Harlem, but this is different. It’s not a strung out hooker, it’s a black power terrorist group making a statement: the B.L.A., or Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers. And so this isn’t framed like a mystery; it’s another story about race and, as you might imagine, given that it’s a TV movie, it’s also based on a true story.
Even though this was 1985, the real events took place in 1971 and were written up in the 1979 true crime book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg. Tanenbaum’s the name we should focus on there, because he was the A.D.A. who prosecuted the case and he’s the lead character, in the form of James Woods.
What follows is as relentless and detailed as you might expect from a TV movie based on a true crime book written by an attorney about that attorney. I don’t know how accurate it is or isn’t, but it speaks primarily to the tenacity of the legal eagle hero rather than the social background that led to black power and an act of terrorism against figures of white authority.
The good here is that it’s all about the nitty gritty. The bad here is, well, exactly the same thing. If you want to get bogged down in these details, you may love this. If that’s everything you hate about true crime TV movies, this will not remotely change your mind.
So we watch the act. Three black men set up two cops in Harlem with a fake call and shoot them both dead outside. They steal their guns. Waverley Jones and Joseph Piagentini are the sixth and seventh cops killed that year in New York City. The B.L.A. claims responsibility. The mayor attends the funerals.
Then we skip to San Francisco three months later, where two of the same black men aim to kill another cop, but their gun jams and so the intended target gives chase, calls in backup and catches them. They’re Albert Washington and Anthony Bottom. They have Jones’s gun in their possession and one of theirs matches the Harlem murders. But the line-up doesn’t work out. Hey, it’s been three months.
Pam Grier finally shows up in the Bronx, as the cops arrest Gabriel and Francisco Torres in a raid, to be charged with the Harlem killing. She’s one of their girlfriends, Alexandra “Alie” Horn; a young Rae Dawn Chong is her younger sister, Christine.
Two years later, there’s James Woods as the A.D.A. inheriting the case and not liking it one bit because the cops haven’t helped him in the slightest. For instance, the girls are in Riker’s, where they’ve been held for thirteen months without charge. What are the odds they might help prosecute the bad guys? Not high.
Chong has more to do than Grier, who gets one scene during the arrest, another when the A.D.A. visits her in Riker’s and a third late in the film when she testifies in court. Oh, and a few moments in flashback scenes as either she or Christine explain what happened when the boys got back from their hit.
Let’s just say she doesn’t have a heck of a lot to do and the circumstances make it even less. For one, much of what she’s tasked to do is act confrontational and not want to talk. Her best scene ought to be the court scene but, frankly, the best actor in the movie is Steven Keats as the defense attorney, Harold Skelton, who gets to dominate her and other witnesses.
So, beyond not being a particularly great TV movie, it’s certainly not a great movie for Pam Grier. She does what she needs to do, but that doesn’t give her any real opportunity.
James Woods has the most screen time, of course, and he does have “nervous intensity”, as Leonard Maltin’s words on the poster point out, but I didn’t enjoy his performance. I felt that his nervous intensity was annoying, as if the A.D.A. was doing cocaine throughout as a way to deal with the constant frustrations of the case. That said, the best scene in the movie is his, when he meets with Joseph Piagentini’s widow Diane, played by Toni Kalem, and gains some focus after she presses him relentlessly to put her husband’s killer away.
I enjoyed Yaphet Kotto much more as Det. Cliff Fenton, whom Tanenbaum brings in as the officer in charge because he’s black. Kotto has some good scenes too, like a neat sting that he pulls off in New Orleans.
I didn’t enjoy Steven Keats’s performance in the slightest but I appreciated how damn good it was. The actor does a fantastic job, but the character he plays is loathsome, indulging in constant blatant witness intimidation, about which the judge does precisely nothing.
It’s clear that the film tries to be gritty and procedural and it doesn’t entirely fail, but it’s a series of small steps forward over two hours, with countless introductions of characters we don’t care about and constant shifts from here to there and back again. It gets tiring, which is perhaps appropriate, given that it takes three months to catch the bad guys, three years to get them into court and then, after a mistrial because the jury can’t reach a verdict, another year to get to where we had to get to all along.
What frustrated me the most was that it’s a movie without a purpose. If it meant to tell the truth, then it did so in a very focused manner, ignoring every ounce of important context. If it meant to praise the hero for sticking with it and getting the job done, it certainly doesn’t see him as a saint. If it meant to detail process from crime to conviction like Law & Order, it mostly shows us what’s broken in the system.
Does that make for good entertainment? I’m not convinced.