Lula (Shirley Knight) stands alone in a New York City subway station until a train pulls up and she catches the eye of a young man, Clay (Al Freeman Jr) sitting in one of the carriages; their gazes meet and he thinks little more of it other than she seemed quite attractive, but when he looks up again, she is in the carriage with him, and practically demands that she start a conversation. She is munching on an apple as she begins to chat provocatively, and she sounds as if she knows more about him than she lets on - but Clay would have been better returning to his newspaper...
Dutchman began life as a powerful, award-winning work for the stage by Amiri Baraka, then known by the name Le Roi Jones, which was how he was credited when the film version was made by a mostly British production though the leads in what was essentially a two-hander were American. It was a purposefully incendiary work that encapsulated much of the rising sexual and racial tensions of the day, for the main characters were a black man and a white woman, and although she looks to be seeking common ground at first, the outcome was rather different.
That Baraka mixed up the gender politics with the civil rights issues was a brave move, but perhaps Dutchman would have been more powerful on the stage; indeed, it left some audiences baffled as to why the characters acted like they did. Well, one of the characters, as Clay was fairly easy to figure out as he thinks he's going to get lucky after the party he's travelling to with this new arrival, considering the way she is practically throwing herself at him and draping herself over him. But then she starts bandying the N-word about, all the time with the same overfriendly demeanour, and we see that she is the embodiment of something far less appealing than sexual freedom.
There are other people on the carriage, but they don't have speaking roles and are relegated to reacting to the increasingly histrionic Lula: Knight went all out with her performance, often to rather embarrassing degrees to the extent that any man would have run a mile, or at the very least to a different carriage, rather than spend any more time in this obviously unbalanced woman's company. You might think she's drunk, but the closing minutes indicate she knew precisely what she was doing, though a problem arises with the Lula persona when she looks more like a hectoring statement than a real woman.
Nevertheless, nobody said Baraka should be subtle, and as she chomps on yet another apple to dredge up Biblical themes of Eve tempting Adam in the Garden of Eden, you do get the idea that she's bad news, and that by extension all whites are bad news for the black community. It's a contentious message, and the lack of seeing things equally between the races is a product of its time, but can prove troubling even for audiences watching this many decades later. Freeman plays it bemused, then amused, then to counter Knight's big speech (accompanied by much writhing and yelling, another reason why this seems unreal) Clay gets his own where he rails against the prejudice keeping even a well-educated man like himself down in this society simply because of his skin colour. The climax to this now looks less like a call to arms to prevent people like him being crushed under the heel of The Man (or The Woman) and more like the start of a serial killer flick, but if you want to ponder these concerns, it allows that. Appropriately menacing music by John Barry.