When many people think of blaxploitation cinema, they often think of Shaft, Superfly or Pam Grier vehicles like Foxy Brown. After those obvious highlights, you get into the more cultish stuff that the genre aficionados know and love – Bucktown, Truck Turner, stuff like that. An important title at the aficionado level of blaxploitation appreciation is Gordon’s War, a taut and straightforward action flick that carves out its own unique niche in the way it challenges elements that are often glorified in other films of this genre.
In many ways, you could consider Gordon’s War to be the anti-Superfly. The hero is Gordon (Paul Winfield), a stoic Green Beret who returns home to the war to discover his wife turned to drugs in his absence and died from an overdose. Even worse, the old neighborhood is plagued by a combination of dealers, pimps who deal on the side and junkies who commit many a crime to finance their pitiful lifestyle. In narration, a relative heard in voiceover tells Gordon the army would be required to drive drugs out of Harlem.
… and that’s exactly what Gordon does. He calls in a trio of fellow ex-soldiers (including genre fave and subsequent Italian genre flick actor Tony King) and they form their own military-style unit devoted to exterminating the drug trade in stealth mode. Starting with the street hustlers and junkies, they work their way up the food chain until they gain the notice of local kingpin Spanish Harry (Gilbert Lewis). When Harry tries to retaliate, Gordon and his gang must take drastic measures – and before it’s all done, there will be a showdown in the streets.
Despite being a film where a black filmmaker – in this case, moonlighting actor Ossie Davis – directed a blaxploitation film, Gordon’s War doesn’t get much respect from critics. It is usually shrugged off for being unrealistic and/or too simplistic in its morals. These criticisms miss the point, as Gordon’s War is not a documentary or an Oscar-bait drama. Instead, it’s a kind of revenge fantasy that uses the blaxploitation genre to its own ends, a film that presents a hard-edged vision of the “let’s clean up the ghetto” concept.
On that level, Gordon’s War works very nicely – the script by Kung Fu creator Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander sets up its plot in a streamlined style and differentiates itself from other blaxploitation fare in a crucial way: it’s not about striking back against “the Man.” Instead, it goes after the members of the black community that prey on their own to satisfy their selfish needs. Indeed, the film enjoys putting the screws to the hustlers – one squirm-inducing scene has the heroes shooting up a dealing pimp with his own heroin – and it’s every bit as ruthless as its heroes in getting the job done.
Gordon’s War is also very well directed. Davis offsets the fantasy nature of his plot by using a naturalistic directing style: everything is shot on location, with an accent on local color and the kind of gritty filmmaking techniques that owe as much to The French Connection as they do to Shaft. Victor Kemper’s cinematography is an important part of this down-to-earth style and sells the film’s setting with a gritty sense of style.
Davis also gets strong performances that avoid the kind of caricatures or macho strutting one might expect from a blaxploitation flick. Winfield underplays nicely, saving big displays of emotion for a few key moments, and Lewis makes an appropriately ice-cold (and intriguingly executive-like) villain. There’s also a nice improvisational edge to the scenes where Winfield and his cohorts infiltrate the enemies’ locales to set up their traps. Elsewhere, the sharp-eyed might want to keep a look out for a cameo by a pre-music career Grace Jones as one of Spanish Harry’s drug mules.
In short, if you think all of the “let’s clean up the ghetto” movies are built on a milquetoast, love-thy-neighbor attitude then think again. Gordon’s War is the scorched-earth policy antidote to that sort of fare.