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

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: BUBBA HO-TEP (Vitagraph 2002)

Don Coscarelli, the man who brought you the PHANTASM series, scores a bulls-eye with BUBBA HO-TEP, a totally unique film based on Joe R. Lansdale’s novella. Lansdale is well known to fans of horror fiction for his books and short stories in the filed as well as other genres (crime, westerns, even comic books). Coscarelli’s adaptation is a delightful blend of horror and humor, and a bittersweet reflection on aging, if not gracefully, then with courage.

Bruce Campbell (ASH VS EVIL DEAD) stars as Sebastian Haff, former Elvis impersonator who may or may not really be The King. He believes he is, and that’s what matters. He’s stuck in a Mud Creek, Texas rest home, confined to a walker and battling a weird growth on his pecker. People at the rest home are dying, as you’d expect in a place like this, but under some strange circumstances that’re causing Elvis to have recurring visions.

Elvis has a friend at the home who thinks he’s John F. Kennedy – only the president is now an elderly black man (Ossie Davis), his pigment dyed after the Dallas assassination attempt failed. Or so he believes! When Elvis is attacked in his room by a huge Egyptian beetle (who The King mistakes for a Texas cockroach!), Jack Kennedy thinks LBJ has sent an assassin to finish the job. The pair find some hieroglyphics written in the bathroom stall, and uncover a conspiracy theory about an ancient mummy (who Elvis calls ‘Bubba Ho-Tep’) sucking the souls out of the elderly patients through – well, let’s just say through nefarious means! The King and The President must now join forces and get ready to TCB against the evil Egyptian soul-sucker!

Campbell does Elvis better than anyone this side of Kurt Russell, and his performance as the aging King of Rock & Roll is a joy to behold. Davis also shines as JFK, who’s had part of his brain replaced by a bag of sand (or so he believes). The two men may be old and infirm, not to mention a bit daft in the head, but that doesn’t stop them from performing some heroic deeds in order to save their fellow rest home residents from losing the only thing most of them have left – their immortal souls! Both Campbell and Davis create believable, sympathetic characters, never falling into outright parody, and make one hell of a geriatric Dynamic Duo!

Veteran Larry Pennell, known to TV fans as ‘Dash Riprock’ on THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, has a brief but memorable role as Kemosabe, who believes he’s The Lone Ranger, and who are we to doubt him! Ella Joyce (ROC) is a standout as Elvis’s sassy nurse. Coscarelli regulars Reggie Bannister, Heidi Marnhout, and Bob Ivy (as Bubba) appear, and cult actor Daniel Roebuck has a cameo as a hearse driver. BUBBA HO-TEP has gained cult status itself over time, and is a bit of a different treat to put on your Halloween watch list.

 

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