The Super Cops (Gordon Parks, 1974)
Full disclosure. While I’ve certainly seen my fair share of blaxploitation flicks, I’ve never caught up with what I guess is considered the one that started it all, Great Granddaddy Gordon Parks’ 1971 Shaft (Shut your mouth!) — well, that one along with other Great Grandaddy Melvin Van Peebles’ kick-ass radical Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song from the same year, which I have seen — or any of the “Shaft” sequels that followed for that matter… and, what do you know, the two “Shaft” films by Park were both playing as part of a retro of the famed African-American renaissance man’s film work at Anthology just as I was on one of my frequent pilgrimages to the Big Apple (yep, I still willy-nilly travel all about, even in face of certain death from Covid… and, between you and me, don’t tell no one, but I even sneak my mask down in the theater when no one’s looking!). Alas, the trend continued, and I missed them yet again (reminds me of my relationship with Eric Rohmer’s The Aviator’s Wife – I know, I know, a very different film but stick with me here — in that, no matter how much I want to see it, I seem to find myself annually just missing it playing at some rep cinema somewhere).
I did, however, catch up with this other Parks’ entry playing as part of the program, the one he made right after his “Shaft” movies. Based on the supposedly true exploits of the exuberant New York beat cop team infamously nicknamed Batman and Robin who, right out of the gate from their initial rookie days, not only energetically fought street crime, but fended off the deep apathy and corruption that had infiltrated so many urban precinct houses (while trying to dodge the out-and-out resentment so many cops had towards them for actually trying to make a difference), not only is the film an entertaining ride (think a more comic book fun, anarchically-spirited Serpico – hell, the film even ends with a big colorful ‘POW!’ across the screen, straight out of the old 60’s Batman show), I also found it kind of a surprise; considering the film reverberates excitedly with all of the hip street-indie style aesthetics that were a huge part of that glorious, way too-short-lived, black audience-fave genre, Parks actually makes heroes of the two white cops.
I guess, with cleverly amusing scenes (in a film with a lot of those), such as the two super cops turning the tables on the bribery set-up against them by the department (with half the bemused and frustrated higher-ups believing either the two mavericks simply have to be on the take, as they can’t imagine any cop going out of their way to collar as many criminals as they do, and the other half just having had enough of their disruptive antics) to try and discredit them and get them thrown off the force, leading to a well-done, tense and amusing diner stand-off where no one can figure out who exactly is arresting who), it does still end up as a raucous audience-catering fantasy of besting the white establishment (exemplified by the wrap-around segments – with the prologue showing us the actual two cops being officially awarded for bravery before the press, with the Captain handing them medals, then re-played at the end only now with actors, and a far greater sense of the tremendous irony of what’s going on in the award ceremony).
With the narrative alternating mostly between the streets and the precinct, we learn next to nothing about the super cops’ personal lives, and yet the two second-tier leads are super engaging. Ron Leibman, a familiar if unexceptional character face for me growing up, is a most pleasant surprise, playing Greenberg, the more vocal front man of the partners, with such a level of vibrancy, and just the right amount of dangerous edge (for this movie anyway – let’s be clear, it’s not striving to be anywhere near as angst-ridden as Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s much more self-important ‘straight’ Hollywood entry Serpico he ends up kinda carrying the film, with the reserved (and usually bland – I put him in the same universe with actor Gary Lockwood, in fact, I often get them mixed up) David Selby ending up playing nicely off Liebman’s anchoring energy. There’s a few welcome 70’s character actor faces in there, like Pat Hingle, as the angry Police Captain forced, in the end, to pretend pride as he pins medals on the uniform chests of the two very sources of his annoyance. The gorgeous Sheila Frazer as the tough hooker who reluctantly helps the insistent Greenberg is not only a serious looker, but has some chops as an actor, playing really nicely (again, just like the other actors) off of Liebman’s brazen cop. Her delectable presence has me considering a quick look back at the two “Superfly” films from the same period, with the first of that series helmed by none-other-than Parks’ son Junior, having taken up daddy’s blaxploitation cred with equally successful results.
Directed with just the right tongue-in-cheek undertone (the chase sequence in the abandoned apartment building in the process of being demolished, with both our super cops and the bad guys trying to avoid the collapsing walls and stairs being another highlight), punctuated with the occasional moment of of gravitas (the reaction of the two cops killing two high level drug dealers is played with just the appropriate level of seriousness), The Super Cops is a really enjoyable ride.
And while on the surface it might be a surprise to find Grand Blaxploitation Poobah Parks creating such a myth-making celebration of two super cops taking on the ‘hood (and, in fact, from what I’ve gathered since, there’s a lot of conflicting information on how clean and genuine these guys actually were, with the blowhard Greenberg prone towards all sorts of near-delusional attention-seeking self-aggrandizement), with the tale’s primary focus being on their ultimate victory over the bureaucratically-focused and corrupt police force, it still ends up a genre-satisfying ‘Fuck You’ to the Man.