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Across 110th Street

Across 110th Street(1972)

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teaser Across 110th Street (1972)

The early 1970s saw the birth of the Blaxploitation subgenre, urban crime melodramas targeted at black audiences. Many of these films, including Shaft (1971) and Across 110th Street (1972), were based in Harlem and depicted the struggles the black community faced as their neighborhood, and New York City at large, was undergoing an economic crisis. The late 1960s saw an exodus of white people moving out of the city into the suburbs and marked the end of post WWII prosperity. The strikes, blackouts, political corruption and an increase in crime and poverty pushed New York City to the brink of bankruptcy. Many Harlem residents left for Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx leaving those behind who did not have the means to follow suit. There was a sense of isolation and insecurity that remained for those left behind.

Directed by Barry Shear and based on the novel Across 110th by Wally Ferris, the Blaxploitation film Across 110th Street (1972) explores the vicious cycle of crime, corruption, drugs and violence in 1970s Harlem. The title is a reference to the dividing line, 110th Street, on the northern border of Central Park, which separates Harlem from the more prosperous and predominantly white neighborhoods of New York City. In the film, an illegal Harlem bank, run by black mobsters but ultimately controlled by Italian ones, is the target of a robbery gone wrong which results in the killing of mobsters and a trio of criminals on the run. Anthony Quinn and Yaphet Kotto star as Captain Mattelli and Lieutenant Pope, who reluctantly team together to solve the crime. The dichotomy of a racist white cop and the intelligent black cop was a winning formula for In The Heat Of The Night (1967) and Hollywood saw potential in more stories with this dynamic. Pictures bid on the film rights for Wally Ferris's novel and it ultimately went to United Artists and Film Guarantors, Inc., a production company that, according to the AFI, had been primarily involved in providing completion bonds to filmmakers.

Quinn hadn't intended to star in Across 110th Street. He was satisfied working on the project as executive producer along with director Barry Shear. The role of Captain Mattelli was offered to Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and John Wayne who all ultimately turned down the role. Quinn cast himself in the lead to keep the production moving along. For the role of Lieutenant Pope actors Lou Gossett Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were all considered before Kotto was cast. Shear and Quinn along with casting director Marion Dougherty reached out to various New York City based African American groups, including the Negro Ensemble Company, the Afro-American Day, Inc. and the Congress of Racial Equality, to help them cast black actors and to listen to concerns regarding the script and the depiction of the various black characters. According to Dougherty, many of the black actors approached for auditions were reluctant to participate because the film had a white director. Others were moved by the subject matter and eager to try out.

Paul Benjamin was cast in the role of Jim Harris, the mastermind behind the Harlem bank heist and the victim of a cycle of oppression. His character is a 42-year-old ex-con with little education, no career training and health problems which preclude him from living a life on the straight and narrow. Benjamin suffered a seizure early on in the production which may have resulted in the filmmakers adding a history of epilepsy to his character's backstory. Other cast members, who became regulars in Blaxploitation films, include Antonio Fargas as Henry J. Jackson, the driver of the getaway car; Ed Bernard as Joe, Harris' main accomplice; former song-and-dance man Richard Ward as black mob leader Doc Johnson; and Gloria Hendry as Laurelene. Singer Norma Donaldson has a plum role as Jim Harris' long suffering girlfriend. Also cast was Eddie Smith, who was the first African-American to receive on screen credit for his work as a stunt coordinator. Among the Italians cast in the film was Anthony Franciosa, who plays the sadistic Nick D'Salvio, the errand boy for his Italian mob boss father-in-law. Burt Young, who would later play Paulie in the Rocky movies, has a bit role as an Italian mobster in the bank heist scene. While Quinn and Kotto received top billing, the cast is credited in alphabetical order.

In her memoir, casting director Marion Dougherty wrote, "there was some very tough material in Across 110th Street. They went for the blood and violence but had the screenplay been edited for integrity it would've really been an eye-opening film..." Across 110th Street received negative reviews with critics pointing out the use of graphic violence and racial stereotypes. The film was praised for the excellent storytelling and Shear's direction. Star Yaphet Kotto's work on Across 110th Street helped him get a part as the villain Dr. Kananga in the James Bond film Live And Let Die (1973).

The film would have completely faded into obscurity had it not been for its theme song with music by jazz trombonist and composer J.J. Johnson and gospel singer-songwriter Bobby Womack. According to Johnson biographer Joshua Berrett, this was "arguably the most violent film of gang warfare with which Johnson was ever associated, afforded him the opportunity to write sharply drawn cues and bridges." The song's lyrics spoke to the struggles of surviving in a Harlem that was rife with crime, drugs and violence. The song was a hit and spent several weeks on the Billboard charts for best selling soul music. It features prominently in the opening sequences of Quentin Tarantino's Blaxploitation film Jackie Brown (1997) starring Pam Grier.

By Raquel Stecher

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