A New Orleans Film Review: J.D.’s Revenge (dir by Arthur Marks)

Ike (Glynn Turman) is a nice guy.  He’s a law student living in New Orleans.  When not studying, he makes money driving a taxi cab.  He has a beautiful and loving wife named Christella (Joan Pringle).  He has a nice but modest apartment.  When we first see Ike, he is calmly and rationally breaking up a fight.  Perhaps the only real complain that can be made about Ike is that he’s actually too nice.  There’s nothing dangerous about Ike.  He works hard.  He studies.  That’s about it.

When Christella and their friends tell him that he needs to take a night off from studying, Ike is reluctant.  However, he finally agrees to go out with them.  They start out at a strip club in the French Quarter and eventually, they end up watching a hypnotist.  Ike is one of the men randomly selected to go up on stage.  Amazingly, rational and mild Ike is easily hypnotized.  The audience loves watching as Ike and the other men all reacts to hypnotic suggestion.  What they don’t know is that, while in his trance, Ike has been … possessed!

That’s right!  The ghost of J.D. Walker has entered Ike.  Who is J.D. Walker?  As we learn from a series of gauzy flashbacks, J.D. Walker was a gangster in the 1940s.  He wore a fedora.  He wore nice suits.  He was every bit as flamboyant as Ike is mild.  But then, one day, J.D. was killed, gunned down by his former business partner, Theotis Bliss (Fred Pinkard).

Soon, Ike starts to act … well, not like himself.  Suddenly, Ike is using 1940s slang.  He’s wearing 1940s clothes.  He’s gambling.  He mugs an old lady who gets in his cab and then abandons her on the wharf.  When his wife asks him why he’s acting like a 1940s gangster, he gets violent.  Soon, Ike is speaking in a different voice and dancing.

What does J.D. want?  He wants revenge against not only the man who shot him but also Theotis’s younger brother, a popular preacher named Elijah (Lou Gossett, Jr.).  As wild as the possessed Ike may be, he’s got nothing on Elijah.  Elijah was a boxer before he became a man of God and he’s still liable to throw a punch or two during his sermons.  Elijah, however, is also rather naive and has no hesitation about inviting J.D. to become a member of his congregation.  Theotis, who is now Elijah’s manager, is a bit more suspicious…

An oddly paced film that never quite escapes the lengthy shadows of all of the horror films that inspired it, J.D.’s Revenge is worth seeing for the performances Glynn Thurman and Lou Gossett, Jr.  Gossett is all energetic charisma in the role of the reverend, giving a performance that features just enough ambiguity that you’re never sure whether you should trust Elijah or not.  Meanwhile, Thurman is very good as the mild-mannered Ike but he seems to be having an absolute blast whenever he gets to play the psychotic J.D.  During the final confrontation between Ike/J.D. and the Bliss Brothers, Thurman’s performance is so bizarre and over the top that you simply cannot stop watching him.

J.D.’s Revenge was filmed in New Orleans, which add a little bit of gothic atmosphere to the film.  As I write this, a lot of our readers may currently be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  I wish them all well but I hope they’ll remember the lesson of J.D.’s Revenge.  Just say no to hypnosis!

Shattered Politics #33: Detroit 9000 (dir by Arthur Marks)


Pity poor Detroit!

For the past few years, it seems that, whenever someone has wanted to make the argument that America is heading in the wrong direction, Detroit gets mentioned.  The once thriving city and industrial center is now best known for high unemployment, high crime, and a declining population.  After years of civic mismanagement, Detroit went bankrupt.  Fairly or not, many people will always view Detroit as being the city that can’t afford to keep the lights on and where citizens can’t afford to pay their water bill.  It doesn’t matter how many “Detroit is making a comeback!” commercials run during the Super Bowl.

I have to admit that, for someone like me who lives on the other end of the country, Detroit might as well be on another planet.  (And that planet is called Michigan.)  I have no way of knowing what Detroit was like before the media started to bombard me with stories about the city’s decline.  And that’s one reason why I have to feel sorry for the city of Detroit.  Anything positive about Detroit will never be reported but you can rest assured that anything negative will be recorded, reported, and repeated until everyone in the country can recite the details by memory.

If I’ve got Detroit on the mind, it’s because I recently watched a fairly memorable crime film from 1973 that was set and filmed in Detroit.  It was a film that — long before Only Lovers Left Alive — attempted to use the city itself as a metaphor for the political issues and social concerns of the day.  In fact, the city was such an important part of the film that the film itself was even named Detroit 9000.

(Reportedly, the film was originally meant to be set in Chicago but, when the Chicago political establishment objected to the film’s violence, production was relocated to Detroit, where apparently the script’s violence was not a problem.)

Detroit 9000 opens with a fundraiser for Congressman Aubrey Hale Clayton (Rudy Challeneger), who is running for governor of Michigan.  A group of masked gunmen break into the hotel and rob the fundraiser.  (While the guests are forced to kneel on the floor while being robbed, a woman stands on stage and sings a gospel song, which just adds to the surreal feel of the scene.)  To investigate the case, the laid-back, casually corrupt Lt. Danny Basset (Alex Rocco) is partnered up with upright Sgt. Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes).  Because Clayton is the first black man to ever have a real chance to be elected governor and because everyone robbed at the fundraiser was black, Williams believes that there had to be a racial motivation behind the robbery.  Danny, meanwhile, insists that it was just an ordinary robbery.

Detroit 9000 is a favorite film of Quentin Tarantino’s and, watching it, you can see why.  From the soundtrack to the hard-edged dialogue to the morally ambiguous heroes, Detroit 9000 is a masterpiece of 1970s exploitation.  The film ends with a genuinely exciting chase through the streets (and cemeteries) of Detroit that eventually gets so excessively violent that it takes on an oddly operatic beauty of its own.

And, in the underrated style of so many so-called grindhouse and exploitation films, Detroit 9000 has a lot more on its mind than most mainstream film.  Even today, I think you’d have a hard time finding a big-budget, studio production that would be willing to take as honest a view of race relations as Detroit 9000 does.  Beneath all of the exploitation trapping, there lies a film that was actually saying something about the way life was being lived in 1973 and which still has a lot to say about how life is being lived today in 2015.

And, much like Jim Jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive, director Arthur Marks finds a strange sort of life in Detroit’s abandoned buildings and dark alleys.  As odd as it may seem, this cynical and violent film will actually make you love Detroit more than a hundred “Detroit is making a comeback!” super bowl commercials ever could.