One of the great thing about art is that the way we perceive it isn’t static. A film or novel or painting is exactly the same whole from one day to the next, but what we bring to it at each point in our lives we view it affects how we take it all in. For instance, every time I watch INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, I view it a different way. Sometimes it’s a doomed love story; sometimes it’s a social critique on sameness; others, it’s a terse sci fi film. BODY SNATCHERS is a multilayered work, so what I take in depends on where I am in life. MANIAC COP, however, is not a multilayered work at all. It’s an exploitative piece written and directed by two of the best in the field of exploitation, Larry Cohen and William Lustig. So when I put it on last night, I expected no deeper personal reaction from it than the last time I saw it. As I watched, though, a scary question popped up in my mind: What if the Maniac Cop only killed Blacks?
I realize that the question is a byproduct of current events. Last summer, a White cop shoots a Black man, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO. The cop looks to be at fault. Despite this, the grand jury refuses to indict the cop. A month earlier, a White cop chokes Eric Garner to death with an outlawed choke hold as Garner says he can’t breathe. Garner was guilty of selling loose cigarettes. Garner dies on the spot. This happens on video. The cop goes free without ever coming to trial. Though not a cop case, just last weekend a White guy in South Carolina goes into a church and slaughters churchgoers whose only offense was that they went to worship. According to him, before he opens fire, their offense was being Black. The right wing press wonders what his motivation is, IGNORING THAT HE CLEARLY STATED IT BEFORE OPENING FIRE.
The message is clear to me. Some of those who are upheld to protect us have neglected that idea, to the point where they’re actually killing a portion of us based on skin color. Now I am a very White male, and I’ve been fortunate through the last 20 years to work with a number of people who are very not White. I never think that I have some privileged cultural status in the country based on my skin, even if that may be the case in some circumstances. So color boundaries don’t prevent me from seeing and acknowledging what’s wrong. What would otherwise be a number of isolated cases create an aggregate that promotes one message: It’s open game on Blacks in America. And there’s all sorts of wrong with that.
Which brings me back to MANIAC COP. Admittedly, the film has nothing to do with race relations. Richard Roundtree playing the commissioner has no bearing on the script at all. Its title not only describes what the flick is about, but pretty blatantly proclaims this is an exploitation movie, which is even further evident when it’s revealed later in the film that the title character is a zombie. In that light alone, it satisfies. But again, I was watching the flick in a whole different light last night.
Which keeps bringing me back to that question. So I started to deconstruct the movie, to see if I could find an answer.
I started off with the title character. Matt Cordell is, as the title states, a maniac. He kills a number of people in the film. His first victim is, in fact, a victim herself of a mugging. His next victim is guilty of almost blowing a red light. His third victim is guilty either of trying to get into his own car, or of playing a musical instrument. The only difference between Frank Zito of Lustig’s debut film MANIAC and Cordell is a badge. That badge makes all the difference. It separates Cordell from the general population and gives him the skills, training and weapons to kill. But what if, I pondered, instead of being a NYC cop, he was assigned to Atlanta, or Compton, CA? That would make his victims all Black, which would shade the film quite differently, because Matt Cordell is White.
Countering him early in the film is Tom Atkins as Detective Frank McCrae. He’s convinced that the killer is a cop, while the rest of the force wants no part of that explanation. The commissioner is quick to paint Frank as unstable, rather than face that one of his own is disgracing the shield and terrorizing the community. Though the commissioner’s defiance exemplifies the commonly held idea that cops protect their own, Frank is more concerned with stopping the killings than protecting a rogue officer. I can only hope that behind that impenetrable shield there are cops like Frank, embarrassed by what’s going on in the current climate and doing their best to set things right. If there aren’t, our society is doomed to become a police state, swirling in a sea of racism.
In his quest to find the maniac cop, Frank turns over info to a reporter. During their exchange, Frank makes a very telling statement. “Most people respect the uniform. They’ll do anything a cop tells them.” The message is clear, both to the reporter and in reality. Cops are, by definition, there to serve and protect. We’re supposed to be able to trust them to do just that. Can any Black person in our society honestly trust a cop at this point? I can’t answer that, but if I were one, I certainly wouldn’t.
Once that dissension sets in and the trust disappears in the film, there’s a scene that is absolutely frightening. A woman’s car breaks down as she’s listening to the reporter discuss the maniac cop. A cop car pulls over behind her. She frantically tries to start the car. He knocks on the window and she responds by blowing a good chunk of his head off. Problem is, he’s not the maniac cop. Is it so hard to imagine that this same scenario couldn’t happen all over the country, any time a Black gets pulled over for any sort of traffic infraction? Not for me.
All this scared me as I pondered it. Perhaps not rightfully. As I said earlier, MANIAC COP isn’t about race relations, racism or class at all. But then one last thought creeped into my head, solidifying my line of thought. A long time ago, Larry Cohen directed BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM. Those are some of the most important Blaxploitation films, part of a genre based on Blacks rising up against The Man in a social order established on inequality. I wondered to myself if Larry were writing MANIAC COP today instead of in 1988, would all the victims be Black? And my God, what controversy would that cause?
Politicians and the media will tell you that race relations are a complicated matter. I say that’s an outright lie. They’ll do all they can to distract from the fact that cops are killing Black people and getting off without even going to trial. With each incident, the divide between cops and Blacks grows wider, and it paints a grim picture of what is to come if things don’t change.
The Maniac Cop didn’t kill Black people. But there are a few in the film, including one woman being interviewed on the nightly news. She says, “You see a cop coming now, you get out of the way.” Given my latest viewing of the film and what I took from it, it would have been so easy for me to have heard her say, “White cop.”