That’s Blaxploitation! 12: COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (United Artists 1970)


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.

Hardboiled author 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!’:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

SHAFT

 

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 11: Jim Brown in SLAUGHTER (AIP 1972)

Jim Brown  is one bad mother… no wait, that’s Richard Roundtree as Shaft! Jim Brown is one bad dude as SLAUGHTER, a 1972 Blaxploitation revenge yarn chock full of action. Brown’s imposing physical presence dominates the film, and he doesn’t have to do much in the acting department, ’cause Shakespeare this ain’t – it’s a balls to the wall, slam-bang flick courtesy of action specialist Jack Starrett (RUN ANGEL RUN, CLEOPATRA JONES , RACE WITH THE DEVIL) that doesn’t let up until the last second, resulting in one of the genre’s best.

Ex-Green Beret Slaughter (no first name given) is determined to get the bad guys who blew up his dad’s car, with dad in it! Seems dear ol’ dad was mob connected and knew too much. Slaughter’s reckless abandon in seeking revenge lands him in hot water with Treasury agents, and he’s “persuaded” to assist them in taking down the Mafiosos, who’re using a high-tech “supercomputer” to run their illegal enterprises. He’s assigned two handlers, gorgeous but icy Kim and goofy but competent Harry, and flown to an unspecified South American country that looks suspiciously like Mexico City (where most of the movie was shot).

Mafia Don Mario Felice is level-headed, while his capo Dominic Hoffo is a stone cold killer. There’s tension between the two, especially after Felice sends Hoffo’s sexy goomah Ann to spy on Slaughter – and she winds up falling under his sexual spell! There’s plenty of action and a high body count ahead as Slaughter pummels, shoots, and jive talks his way through the movie like the proverbial bull in a china shop, right up until the obligatory car chase ending, which is particularly well-edited by AIP stalwart Renn Reynolds (PSYCH-OUT, THE SAVAGE SEVEN).

Brown is in control as the title character, commanding the film with his macho charisma. He’s kind of like a Blaxploitation Bond, only with no boundaries whatsoever. The always reliable Don Gordon plays sidekick Harry, and delivers some much needed comic relief to all the badassery happening. Stella Stevens as Ann parading around in a skimpy bikini (and less!!) is definitely a highlight, and her sex scenes with Brown torch the screen. Rip Torn shows restraint as Hoffo, until the point where, in a jealous rage, he brutally beats the holy fuck out of Stella. That scene is not for the squeamish! Cameron Mitchell has what amounts to a cameo as the T-Man in charge of the operation, and Marlene Clark (GANJA AND HESS, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS) is given next to nothing to do as agent Kim.

Composer Luchi De Jesus adds a funky music score, as he did for DETROIT 9000, BLACK BELT JONES , and FRIDAY FOSTER. Yes, there is a theme song, this one by the great Billy Preston (later used in Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), which I’ll leave you with as I search for more bodacious Blaxploitation movies for your edification and enlightenment. Take it away, Billy:

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

That’s Blaxploitation! 8: SUPER FLY (Warner Brothers 1972)

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Pimpmobiles, outrageous fashions, and the funkiest score in movie history are only part of what makes SUPER FLY one of the best Blaxploitation/Grindhouse hits of all time. This low-budget film by director Gordon Parks Jr. captures the grittiness of 70’s New York in a way few larger productions ever could in its portrait of a street hustler yearning to get out of the life.

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Priest is a New York City coke dealer with all the outward trappings of success. As his partner Eddie puts it, he’s got “8-Track stereo, color TV in every room, and you can snort a half piece of dope every day… that’s the American dream, nigga! Ain’t it?”. To Priest, the answer is no. He’s tired of the hustle, the rip-off artists, and the deadbeats like Fat Freddie, and he’s got a plan to get out for good by scoring 30 keys through his mentor Scatter, selling them in four months, making a million dollars, and saying goodbye to the streets once and for all.

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But Priest’s plan hits a few snags when Fat Freddie gets busted and rats him out, triggering crooked cops led by a Deputy Commissioner to pull Priest and Eddie back in, making them an offer they can’t refuse to work for The Man. Eddie’s all for it, but Priest’s determined to quit after Scatter’s lugged by the cops and shot full of heroin, causing is death. Priest demands his half of the cash from Eddie, who promptly calls The Man. But once again, Priest’s got a plan to stick it to The Man one last time…

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SUPER FLY made a superstar out of Ron O’Neal- for a brief, shining moment anyway. Primarily a stage actor before this, O’Neal lights up the screen as the iconic anti-hero Priest, and gave him enough clout to direct the sequel, 1973’s SUPER FLY TNT. The sequel bombed at the box office however, and his subsequent film career saw him cast in mostly supporting roles: THE MASTER GUNFIGHTER (with BILLY JACK star Tom Laughlin), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS, A FORCE OF ONE, RED DAWN, and Larry Cohen’s ORIGINAL GANGSTERS, with fellow Blaxploitaion icons Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, and Richard Roundtree. Ron O’Neal, forever SUPER FLY, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2004.

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The other cast members aren’t household names, but will be familiar to genre fans. Carl Lee (Eddie) appeared in GORDON’S WAR as well as the exploitationer  WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS . (He was also the son of boxer/actor Canada Lee, noted for Hicthcock’s LIFEBOAT and the boxing noir BODY AND SOUL). Sheila Frazier (Priest’s main squeeze Georgia) was in 70’s films THE SUPER COPS, THREE THE HARD WAY, CALIFORNIA SUITE, and tons of TV guest shots. The great Julius Harris (Scatter) has an impressive resume that includes TROUBLE MAN, BLACK CAESAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM, and the James Bond outing LIVE AND LET DIE. Charles McGregor (Fat Freddie) can be seen in ACROSS 110th STREET and COME BACK CHARLESTON BLUE, among others. Producer Sig Shore pulls double duty by playing the crooked Commissioner Reardon.

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Director Gordon Parks Jr’s dad was a famous writer, photographer, and filmmaker who practically single-handedly ushered in the Blaxploitation film movement with his mega-hit SHAFT. But while the elder Parks’ protagonist was a more traditional hero, Parks Jr.’s star is an outlaw, working outside the constrains of society. Not to mention SHAFT had a way bigger budget than SUPER FLY’s paltry $58,000. Both films scored big at the box office though, and a genre was born. Kudos must go to DP James Signorelli, whose photography of New York street life is outstanding, and whose memorable staging of a steamy, soapy sex scene between O’Neal and Frazier still sizzles. Signorelli has worked for decades now producing most of the filmed parody segments on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Any discussion of SUPER FLY wouldn’t be complete without spotlighting Curtis Mayfield’s amazing soundtrack. The former lead singer of The Impressions’ urban soul/funk provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s down-and-dirty mood. As big a hit as the film was, the soundtrack album was an enormous success. Even white kids like me used to cruise around listening to “Superfly”, “Pusherman”, and “Freddie’s Dead” on our 8-Tracks (yes, 8-Tracks!). Mayfield and his band even appear in the film, playing “Pusherman” at Scatter’s club:

Fans of Blaxploitation/Grindhouse movies who haven’t yet seen SUPER FLY are depriving themselves of a genuine 70’s classic. It’s one of those films that captures the times perfectly, and influenced future filmmakers like John Singleton (BOYS N THE HOOD) and Ernest Dickerson (JUICE). “The game he plays he plays for keeps/Hustlin’ times and ghetto streets/Tryin’ to get over” indeed!

More “That’s Blaxploitation!”:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

 

 

That’s Blaxploitation 4: ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN (Mirror Releasing 1977)

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When TCM Underground announced they were running something called ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN last Saturday at 2AM, I just had to record it. For one thing, I’d never heard of it, and for another, it sounded so cheesy I knew I had to take a look. So last night (after watching the mighty New England Patriots vanquish their arch-enemies, the hated New York Giants), I settled into my recliner and pressed play. What I got was unexpected, and though the film is cheaply shot, with high-school level acting and no technical skills behind the cameras, it’s a game attempt at trying something different within the confines of the Blaxploitaion genre.

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Dr. Ken Kinkade, a researcher working on a top secret grant project, and his family move into an affluent white neighborhood, and immediately become victims of white bigotry. The neighbors protest outside the Kinkade’s home,  hurling garbage onto the lawn, until members of the BFU (Black Front of Unity) arrive. Led by radical John Abar, the BFU defend the Kinkades, but urge them to return to the ghetto and help their own people. Dr. Kinkade’s grateful for the assistance, but refuses to leave, despite having the family’s pet cat hung at his front door, and a coffin placed on his sidewalk.

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When Kinkade’s son is run down in the street by a hostile white, he reveals to Abar the secret of his experiments.  He’s developed a formula to create superhumans, ala Captain America. Abar drinks the potion and is transformed. But not in the way you’d think, and here’s where the film loses steam.  Instead of becoming a superhero battling the racists, he’s given “psychic powers” that turn cops against each other, winos into milk drinkers, a Cadillac into a horse-and-buggy,  and street corner hoods into college grads. Abar can also control the elements, and causes a series of plagues to befall the white folks (hurricane winds, rats, snakes). The whites finally learn to accept their black neighbors, and Abar walks off into the sunset as the credits roll with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream” speech playing him out.

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The producer, writer, and director were attempting a “message” film, and maybe with a proper budget they would’ve succeeded. As it stands, ABAR will go down as a gallant try. Have race relations improved since this late 70’s movie? I’ll leave that to the news channel pundits to debate. This is a film blog, not a political soapbox, so I’ll just say that if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary then catch ABAR next time it’s shown. It’s a thought provoking film mixing social commentary and sci-fi that is worth viewing despite the rock-bottom production values and  misleading title. You may be pleasantly surprised.

 

That’s Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)

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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to threaten Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in a terrible hairpiece!), whose karate school sits on the land. Pinky roughs him up a little too well, and Papa dies. Enter Black Belt Jones (friends call him BB), the baddest dude in the hood! Papa’s long-lost daughter Sydney (Hendry) shows up at the funeral, and now owns the building. Turns out she’s a kung-fu fighter, too. Pinky sends for some Bogarts from San Francisco (Don: “What are Bogarts?” – Pinky: “Treacherous niggers!”) to beat up the kung-fu students and hold BB’s young pal Quincy (Eric Lanueville) hostage. BB rips off The Don and sets up Pinky to take the fall. They save Quincy, the hoods find out, and the obligatory car chase is on!  BB and Sydney kick righteous ass on the bad guys and turn them in to BB’s friends the Feds.

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I just love some of the politically incorrect (and inept) dialogue in BLACK BELT JONES:

  • “Wesley, I’m gonna slap the black offa you!”
  • “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot”
  • “You goddam ape! You made a monkey outta us!”

Kelly’s karate noises (“woo-woo-woo”) sound more like Curly Howard than Bruce Lee, while the whipcracking sound effects every time someone lands a blow would make a great drinking game! And those fashions…hoo boy! Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) delivers the theme, while the rest of the score, by Luchi DeJesus, is ersatz Quincy Jones, sounding straight out of a 70s cop show (and indeed, DeJesus did the music for TV’s GET CHRISTIE LOVE!).

Full of hand slapping and jive talking, BLACK BELT JONES is a pure slab of 70s cheese. Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I love) wishes he could’ve made this. If you’re in the mood for an 85 minute blast from the past, catch BLACK BELT JONES. Can you dig it?

(There’ll be more That’s Blaxpolitation! posts in the near futureStay tuned, suckas!) 

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