I’m not really sure if COTTON COMES TO HARLEM qualifies as a Blaxploitation film. Most genre experts point to Melvin Van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG and/or Gordon Parks’s SHAFT , both released in 1971, as the films that kicked off the Blaxploitation Era. Yet this movie contains many of the Blaxploitation tropes to follow, and is based on the works of African-American writer Chester Himes.
Himes (1909-1984) began his writing career while doing a prison stretch for armed robbery. After his short stories started being published in Esquire, he was paroled in 1936, and soon met poet Langston Hughes, who helped him get established in the literary world. Reportedly, Himes worked for a time as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in the 40’s, but was let go when a racist Jack Warner declared he “don’t want no n*ggers on this lot” (1). His first novel IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO (1945) drew much praise from critics (and was later made into a 1968 film). After moving to France in the 1950’s, Himes began his Harlem Detective books, a series of hardboiled novels chronicling the adventures of New York detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, whose violent methods make Mike Hammer look like a Boy Scout!
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM the film updates the novel to the 1970’s, as Gravedigger and Coffin Ed cover a Harlem rally by the Reverend Deke O’Malley, a charismatic Jesse Jackson type who’s spearheading a Back to Africa movement. Masked assassins attack and begin shooting, ripping off the 87 thousand in donations, and a comic chase ensues with a bale of cotton falling out the back of an escaping truck. The money’s gone, and so is O’Malley, who’s now Digger and Ed’s prime suspect. The bale is gone, too… seems a local junkman named Uncle Bud has picked it up and sold it for twenty-five bucks! The detectives, O’Malley, and some not-so-righteous Mafia dudes all want that bale, and the chaos begins in full…
Raymond St. Jacques plays the hardcore tough cop Coffin Ed, while comedian Godfrey Cambridge is his slightly more laid-back partner Gravedigger. They returned to the roles two years later with COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, a not nearly as successful sequel, due in large part to not having Ossie Davis on board. Davis directed and cowrote (with Arnold Perl) the screenplay for COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, and the actor/director/writer really nails it with his keen eye for mise en scene, dialog (and dialect), and handling his cast. Davis, a star on Broadway and television as well as films, knew what he wanted and how to capture it, and the movie, though maybe not truly within the Blaxploitation canon, was highly influential in the development of the genre’s style, from the location shooting on the mean streets of Harlem to the outrageously over-the-top bad guys to the funky R&B score written by Galt McDermott (of HAIR fame).
Calvin Lockhart shines as Rev. O’Malley, a con man out to bilk his own people. Other cast members include John Anderson, J.D. Cannon, Lou Jacobi , Judy Pace, Eugene Roche , and Theodore Wilson. Cleavon Little (BLAZING SADDLES ) makes his film debut as a junkie named Lo Boy. Also making his film debut is veteran comedian Redd Foxx as Uncle Bud, a precursor to his role as Fred Sanford on the hit TV show SANFORD & SON. Foxx had toiled for decades on the “chitlin circuit” as a “dirty” comic, and his Uncle Bud, who appropriately enough gets the film’s last laugh, got him some mainstream recognition. He was signed by Norman Lear to star in the new sitcom, and the rest is TV history.
While it may not quite hit all the ‘Blaxploitation’ buzzers, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is an important movie in the genre’s evolution. It’s a gritty crime drama with a predominantly black cast directed by a black director, and broke down some barriers, paving the way for Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks and the birth of what we now call Blaxploitation. Plus, it’s a damn good film that deserves rediscovery, and should be on your watch list.
(1) from “City of Quartz” by Mike Davies (2nd edition, Verso Books, 2006)
More ‘That’s Blaxploitation!’: