Thursday, November 15, 2007

Dir. by Larry Cohen

So if a white guy writes and directs a movie about a black gangster who is super-cool, but also a super-scum bag, is it exploitation or iconography? Does anybody care? Is the soundtrack by James Brown the coolest thing since Isaac Hayes sang the theme song for Shaft?

Tommy Gibbs (Fred Washington) is a go-getter street hood and a crack shot with a broom-handle Mauser. He has tons of ambition and balls to match. Black Caesar chronicles his rise from shoeshine boy and mob runner to Lord of the Ghetto. He survives a vicious beating from McKinney (Art Lund), a crooked cop. Tommy becomes first an underling then a partner and finally the overlord of the alliance of Mafioso and crooked cops that run Harlem. Tommy hires a smart white lawyer (William Wellman Jr.) and even buys off McKinney.

Some lessons to take away: don’t stand around on the street getting a shoe shine when there’s a contract out on you, do build up a loyal cadre of devoted gunmen, don’t ever, ever bring a crooked cop less than the pay off he was expecting, most critical, don’t keep a ledger of every bribe paid to the crooked cops and judges, it’s just plain a bad idea.

Black Caesar suffers from iffy acting, dialog that is sometimes incomprehensible (speaking to a Mafia capo, “I spent years in your private institutions.” Does la Cosa Nostra run youth camps?), and sound that appears to have been recorded on a Mr. Microphone hanging on a mop-handle. I was glued to my seat. Because all that aside, the film is deliriously over the top in its treatment of racial power fantasies. Tommy’s mom is a maid and his dad abandoned him. Tommy’s two best friends are Joe, the nerdy kid, and Rufus, a hood turned into a sleazy preacher. Of course they plan to use crime profits to improve the ghetto (Cohen is honest enough to show that plan never comes to pass). Tommy is brutal and direct in his dealings with his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry).

The real jewels in the crown are Tommy’s revenge on the white crime establishment that scorns him. Some people buy respectability, Tommy buys his lawyer’s up-town apartment, furniture and clothes included. He celebrates by throwing the lawyer’s wife’s fur coats over the balcony. In a twisted climax, Tommy humiliates a white enemy by smearing shoe polish on his face and making him sing “Mammy”!

What stands out here is Fred Williamson’s take as a super-cool, ghetto Alain Delon. While not exactly in the same league as Richard Roundtree, he is a bit above the “You kilted my bruth-ah!” skewered by Robert Townsend in The Hollywood Shuffle. Black Caesar is a true low budget gem. Is it offensive, racist trash or a Black insurrection on screen? I guess that depends on your point of view. There’s a reason they call the genre “Blaxploitation”.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds like a Donald Goines novel. I wonder if it's based on one of his stories.

Dave Hardy said...

It wasn't, at least not in any credits. It certainly hits the Goines style!

I've gotten to be something of a Goines fan lately. I'lll be posting reviews of Eldorado Red, Dopefiend, Kenyatta's Last Hit, and Black Gangster in upcoming Firee & Sword blog entries.