Detroit 9000 is neither the best-known nor the most typical example of the blaxploitation genre, but it's a great example of how movies reflected the racial tensions of that era. When a character in this movie speaks, it's even odds that race relations are being mentioned. That's no coincidence: Detroit had just a few years earlier been the site of one of the deadliest race riots in US history.
It should then be no surprise that cooperation is the theme of the movie. Detroit 9000 plays out like an action-packed action-oriented public service announcement promoting racial unity. The storyline involves a biracial police investigation of a (mild spoiler) racially integrated gang of jewel thieves. Even the local whorehouse takes pride in its level of integration.
The film opens to a band playing a funky gospel tune, composed by the famed Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, at a high-class social gathering called the "Hail our Heroes" ball. A reverend takes the stage to rally support for Aubrey Clayton, who is taking advantage of the event to announce his candidacy for governor and to collect campaign contributions. Armed thieves then take over the building and make off with the contributions, which are largely in the form of expensive jewelry.
Citizens are quick to claim that the robbery was committed by whites in an attempt to thwart Clayton's candidacy. Many note that the event had no police protection and wonder whether the police themselves were involved. The police are under pressure to find out who's involved and whether the robbery was done by whites or was a "brother on brother" crime. All that is known is that the thieves appear to have come from Canada and to have escaped by boat.
The police chief puts Lt. Bassett, played by Alex Rocco, in charge of the case. Bassett is a well-respected policeman who has nevertheless hit the politics wall and risen as far as he can in the force. His honesty upsets family members who would like to see him profit like his crooked colleagues. It also gives a hint as to why department politics don't favor him: he's completely tactless and blunt.
Detective Jesse Williams, played by Hari Rhodes, has a hunch that a murder he's investigating is connected to the robbery. When Williams is added to the investigation, Bassett assumes that it's another instance of somebody coming in to take credit for his efforts. Bassett is chilly towards Williams, but he's professional enough to cooperate.
Williams' connections point him toward Drew Chambers, Clayton's right-hand man. Chambers is not involved, but neither is he upset that Clayton's candidacy is derailed. It turns out that Clayton is anything but the great hope of the people that he presents himself as being.
While Williams explores his connections in the black community, Bassett investigates his connections in the local brothel. No, seriously, he's really there on business. And the girls happen to know him well enough to run up and greet him with hugs. Bassett learns that there was indeed a group of out-of-towners who had recently passed through. A call girl named Roby, played by Vonetta McGee, overhears the conversation and jumps on the phone. She places a heads-up call to a man named Ferdy, who is chilling in a topless club.
Ferdy advises Roby to turn in the out-of-towners, but she's reluctant to do so. They find her first, but she has enough time to tell Williams that Ferdy seized on the robbery idea when she told him of her experience with Clayton. She had been sent to Clayton to provide sexual favors, but she became indignant over how coldly he treated her. It's one thing for a white man to use her and treat her like she's nothing, she figures, but she expects better from a brother.
Chambers was clearly right: If Clayton's such a callous user that even the hookers are disturbed by him, then he's definitely not The Answer. The film's entire plot hinges on this one insane combination of "hooker with a heart of gold," "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" and racial brotherhood.
And that brings us full circle to the concept of cooperation. The black community leaders- the politician Clayton and the reverend- are corrupt men who will sell out their own people. The police investigation makes no headway until the efforts of whites and blacks are combined. A message is repeatedly sent: black power and white power are both futile, and it is only through cooperation that anything is possible. One character tries to strike out on his own, and it goes very poorly for him.
Every racial stereotype and slur is trotted out here. In most cases these are discussed by the characters, which gives the impression that the audience is being challenged to examine their values. I don't buy that, and I can promise you that when African-American couples are alone together, they don't talk about how African-Americans are supposed to be sexually insatiable. However, it is notable that the film's one virulent racist lives in an asylum and directs racial slurs even at herself.
The gang is eventually found, and a long gun battle ensues. There are gunfights, car chases and even horseback and boat chases, but don't expect slick, intense action scenes. The action here is not enough, and not good enough, to call this an action-based film, but it does add a little variety to the plot. This is essentially the story of a police investigation. It moves at a fairly brisk pace and stays interesting throughout, but it's mainly detective work spiced with some action. There is also an unexpected coda that leads to a rather clever unresolved ending. The story's better than one might expect, although it goes overboard with the hard-boiled detective-speak dialogue. Pretty much all of Bassett's lines sound like this:
"Let's say I find out that black assholes pulled this heist. The brothers will claim cover-up. If I say the whites did it, the honkies will say we're pacifying the black community. And if I don't crack this case you and the department are off the hook, but I get the shaft right up my tender keister."
The acting is better than usual for a film of this type. Alex Rocco and Vonetta McGee are especially good, as is Scatman Crothers as the reverend. Action sequences are not top-notch, but they're good enough to get by. It's a shame that the dialogue is guilty of trying too hard, because on the whole this is a better movie than blaxploitation staples like Foxy Brown, though not as much fun.