Tonight in Detroit there is a ball being held to raise funds for good causes, namely the promotion of Aubrey Hale Chambers (Rudy Challenger) to a position of great political power, and he is backed by religious leader the Reverend Markham (Scatman Crothers) who encourages the wealthy guests to give generously of their jewellery into a basket placed in the middle of the ballroom floor. However, they reckoned without someone being all too aware of what they were planning as no sooner has the charity begun than a gang of men wearing ski-masks and gloves, so that not even their ethnicity can be discerned, break in with guns and order everyone to lie down while they help themselves to the loot...
Once they've made good their escape, the crime proves a huge embarrassment to the city's Police Department, and that offered an edge to what could have been your average, run of the mill blaxploitation thriller. Yet here they were careful to include a generous portion of drama into the mix, lending a personality thanks to the well-thought out characters in Orville H. Hampton's script, and it did not go unnoticed; well, it nearly did, but Quentin Tarantino who sees all in these matters decided to champion Detroit 9000 as an unsung classic. If it wasn't quite that good, it did more with the genre's social conscience than many of its contemporaries, resisting the urge to stick with the sex and violence at the expense of the thought provoking.
The lead characters were two cops, one white - Lieutenant Daniel Bassett (Alex Rocco) - and the other black - Sergeant Jesse Williams (Hari Rhodes). At first it is Bassett who is assigned to the case, one which nobody really wants anything to do with thanks to its high profile and racially charged circumstances, with the African American community believing this would never been have allowed if the cops were doing their duty and protecting the guests, all of whom happened to be black. But the Chief points out that they were not told of the event beforehand, and if they knew they would have put black undercover officers into the audience to ensure there was no trouble. Besides, this looks to have been very well organised, er, aside from managing to cause a car to explode during the escape.
This was an action flick as well, you see, so a vehicle detonation was regarded as a must at the time, something to put in the trailer if not making a whole load of sense in the context of the plot. But there were more than a few instances of the film giving in to the exploitation side of blaxploitation, take Rhodes' scene with the love of his life with its absurdly robust dialogue that has to be heard to be believed, or the way the whole thing is very nearly wrapped up by a very long pursuit through Detroit's most impoverished areas, complete with police shooting their gun-toting quarries in the back and the obvious car chase involvement, all to leave the audience satisfied they had all the bang for their buck that they could ever want for a film on this budget.
Arthur Marks was the man behind the camera, already a veteran of this style, and he sustained the sequences where the characters discussed the situation as well as he did those where something more kinetic was taking place. The third member of the star billing belonged to Vonetta McGee, also identified strongly with these movies, here playing a prostitute who provides the lead Bassett is looking for; by this time Williams is in on the case as well, and the two strike up an uneasy friendship with both frank in their misgivings, socially or personally. That they manage to reach an agreement where the most important thing is to catch the criminals no matter what colour they are is a step in the right direction, though this was clear there was a long way to travel until equality was reached. The actual Detroit Police Department was thanked in the credits, and the actual Chief had an acting role, but the film was no whitewash as it acknowledged there were genuine grievances to consider, but then again it didn't let the community off the hook either, nor the plot which ends on a bravely open note. Music by Luchi De Jesus.