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Film Review: The Seven Five

The Seven Five (2014; Directed by Tiller Russell)

The Seven Five is a particularized and spirited document of police corruption in Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s and early ’90s. Imbued with the prosaic, bruised eloquence of the Eastern Seaboard white working class, it relates the remarkable tale of a cop who became a serial gangster. Michael Dowd, a police officer of the NYPD’s 75th Precinct during the cocaine-trade crime wave of the ’80s, starting breaking the law he had sworn and was paid to uphold, and found it not only lucrative but thrilling.

Working with a growing “crew” of corrupt cops, most consistently his longtime partner Ken Eurell, Dowd embarked on his criminality with relatively modest thefts of drug money from dealers and users that he busted (victimless, unreportable crimes, he felt them to be, considering that those he robbed were “perps” themselves). Soon enough, though, Dowd and Eurell became enmeshed with the operation of rising Dominican drug dealer Adam Diaz, collecting regular payments to protect his cash runs, bust his competitors, and pass along information of planned Narcotics and DEA raids and other police activity. They even began to deal drugs themselves through an intermediary on Long Island, and Dowd especially engaged in a freewheeling, indulgent lifestyle of gambling, fast cars, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse.

Dowd’s testimony in front of the investigating commission that finally saw him brought to justice alternates with interviews with the principals and archival photographs and subtle re-enactments. Dowd, Eurell, and especially the dapper, brash Diaz are candid about and maybe even a little proud of their exploits (two of the three did time for them; I won’t spoil which two). What emerges is a true crime narrative both unbelievably and perfectly believable, at once extraordinary and, given the nature of the institution of the police and its prevailing codes, practically inevitable. Much of the questioning during Dowd’s testimony concerns what makes a cop “good” or “bad”, and the repeated message that comes through is that the meanings of those terms are often blurry in the police context, if not entirely inverted.

But the other police that the film encounters are never as reflective and philosophical about these indistinct lines as Dowd has come to be. One federal officer (a “good” cop, at least in relative terms) whose path crossed Dowd’s claims that he made him as a “perp” rather than a fellow cop. He says it with confidence (not at all inflated by hindsight, I’m sure), as if this is a distinction that can be observed with the naked, trained eye and as if our collective safety ought to be entrusted to men who fervently believe that it can be and that they are the ones to make that judgement. It’s a troubling moment that’s as much about thought-position of the officer talking about it than Dowd, the man the judgement is applied to.

Even while breaking countless laws and running interference for murderous drug dealers, Dowd felt a deep sense of commitment and brotherhood towards his fellow officers, and is shaken while sharing the story of the death of a transit cop that he rushed to the hospital after being shot. Other police question his right of access to that fellow-feeling, given his abuses, but never the wagon-circling habits that make holding police to account for misconduct so fiendishly difficult (and that protected Dowd despite his poor reputation in the precinct for years).

Although it’s a story from a very different and much more dangerous time in New York City, The Seven Five‘s focus on the mentality of America’s police and the codes of behaviour that govern them provides insight into the current moment of Black Lives Matter and heightened awareness of and pushback against abuses of power in the nation’s law enforcement. Michael Dowd was a predatory monster, but he was a monster of a corrupt and skewed system’s making. That same system, and the general indoctrination of police officers that it perpetuates and indeed relies upon in order to function and survive, left needlessly dead bodies in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Toronto, and New York City itself. Subtly but firmly, The Seven Five reminds us that the us vs. them mentality of American policing is a moral sinkhole. Dowd dove in gladly, Eurell less so, but both were vulnerable to this quagmire, as ordinary citizens are vulnerable to the police who cannot escape it.

Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews
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