Saturday, May 1, 2010


Not only did “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) mark the directorial debut of actor & writer Ossie Davis, but also this pre-blaxploitation epic introduced audiences to a couple of tough-talking, incorruptible New York Police Detectives nicknamed ‘Gravedigger’ Jones (Godfrey Cambridge of “Watermelon Man”) and ‘Coffin Ed’ Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques of “Cool Breeze”) who suspect that a charismatic religious figure may be swindling his own poor people. Technically, since the term “blaxploitation” didn't enter the lexicon until 1972, this movie poised itself on the cutting edge before the edge starting cutting with films such as the “Shaft” franchise, “Superfly,” and “Slaughter” movies. The chief difference between “Cotton Comes to Harlem” and a standard-issue, formulaic white crime thriller is the protagonists are African-American. The slang is predominantly African-American, but other minorities participate in the action, primarily the Italian mafia. The protagonists are the usual iconoclasts who have alienated themselves from higher authority with their abrasive behavior. Predictably, about three-quarters of the way into the action, a superior officer removes them from the case, largely because he feels that they are acting out of prejudice against one of their own people. Early, the same police captain had complained bitterly that Gravedigger and Coffin Ed have smart mouths, are quick with their fists, and too fast with their guns. Clearly, as far as the captain is concerned, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed qualify as maniacs who have no business in an investigation that is a powder keg of racial tensions. Nevertheless, their white police lieutenant defends their behavior. He explains that they have a special way of handling Harlem crime and if they suspect somebody of criminal behavior, the lieutenant defers to their judgment. Meantime, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed see their job has protecting “the Black folks from the White folks.”

Initially, when we first see the Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart of “Dark of the Sun”), he is riding in a Rolls Royce, cruising through gritty Harlem streets to a rally for his "Back To Africa" campaign. A gold-colored armored car with the black silhouette cut-out of a luxury liner displayed prominently on its roof follows. Rev. Deke refers to this ship as ‘Black Beauty.’ He is selling tickets for it at a $100 minimum to take African-Americans back to Africa, away from the white man and his rats and poverty. Although the white establishment supports Deke, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed believe Deke is swindling poor blacks out of their hard earned dollars. During the rally, Deke explains that God anointed him while he was in jail to build an ark and take his people back to Africa. While this self-proclaimed Noah assures blacks he can provide them with a better way of life away from racist white America, masked thugs in orange suits armed with submachine gun shoot up the gathering and rifle the safe in Deke’s gold-armored truck. They kill one of Deke’s uniformed guards, John (Tony Brubaker of “Slaughter's Big Rip-Off”), and his wife Mabel watches him die. The robbers careen off in a meat truck with Deke following them and Gravedigger and Coffin Ed in hot pursuit.

During the chase, a cotton bale tumbles from the rear of the truck onto the sidewalk. The robbers strafe Gravedigger and Coffin Ed. Our heroes collide with a produce wagon transporting watermelons. Eventually, the robber’s truck and the armored car crash and burn up. Meanwhile, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed search for Deke. They visit his girlfriend, Iris (Judy Pace of “Three in the Attic”), and question her with luck about Deke’s whereabouts. While they are interrogating Iris, Sergeant Jarema (Dick Sabol of “Come Back Charleston Blue”) enters and informs them Lieutenant Anderson (Eugene Roche of “The Happening”), wants them at the scene of the accident. They order Jarema stay behind to keep an eye on Iris. Iris taunts Jarema into having sex with her. She makes him wear a brown paper bag. While he is putting on the bag, she escapes. Jarema locks himself out of her apartment, completely naked in the hallway for the other residents to see.

Captain Bryce (John Anderson of “Young Billy Young”) reprimands our heroes for suspecting that Rev. Deke O’Malley is a confidence artist. Bryce points out that the State Department and other high-prolife white groups have the highest regard for O’Malley. Later, Bryce complains to Anderson about their behavior. Deke decides to stay out of sight and conduct his own investigation. He convinces the wife of one of his dead guards to let him stay with her. Eventually, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed get Iris to inform on Deke and he goes to jail, but his attorney gets him out. Everybody is looking now for the bale of cotton that contains the stolen $87-thousand. Uncle Budd (Red Foxx of “Sanford & Son”) finds the bale and sells it for $25 to Abe Goodman. A mysterious stranger in black with a beret, Calhoun (J.D. Cannon of “Lawman”), visits Uncle Budd on his junk barge and inquires about the bale of cotton. Calhoun comes on tough until Deke’s second-in-command Barry (Teddy Wilson of “Cleopatra Jones”) confronts him and runs him off. Uncle Budd buys the cotton bale back for $30 from Goodman. Later, that night, Calhoun and his gang and Deke and his men converge on Goodman’s Junkyard. A firefight erupts and Digger is nearly struck by a truck. Nevertheless, our heroes nab Deke, haul him in for questioning, and expose him for the swindler that he is. Iris, who was found unconscious at Mabel Hill’s apartment, has told the authorities that Deke hired impostors to masquerade as the District Attorney’s Office. These impostors showed up at Deke’s rally moments before the orange jump-suit clad gunners raked the spectators with gunfire and killed John Hill.

Davis dilutes the thrills and chills of the meat truck & armored car pursuit scene with four smaller scenes within it. These four sub-scenes feature mild comedy, while the primary scene depicts a chase through the streets of New York City. The first sub-scene involves a guy trying to attract the attention of three lovely ladies strolling on the sidewalk. None ever acknowledge his existence. The second involves a hustler stealing a rack of dresses from a street vendor when the chase momentarily distracts him. The third concerns a stoned individual trying to ignite a joint. The smoker staggers into the street and miraculously neither the armored truck nor the police cruiser collide with him. This gag resembles the physical comedy that Buster Keaton practiced in silent movies. The fourth gag involves a street artist painting an expressionist portrait of a gullible Christian woman while the pickpocket Early Riser wields a pair of scissors to cut through her skirt to steal the purse that she is clutching between her legs. These four sub-scenes feature mild comedy, while the primary scene depicts a straight-forward chase through the streets of New York City that ends with the pickpocket being struck and killed. During the chase, the gunmen in the meat truck riddle the unmarked police car, shatter its window into shards, blow out its headlights, and obliterate the outside rearview mirrors. Oops, the driver’s outside rear view reappears after bullets have torn it off the door when our heroes crash into a watermelon wagon.

Geoffrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques make a believable pair of cops who interact as if they have known each other for a long time. As Coffin Ed, St. Jacques is the hard-nosed detective of the two with a short fuse who prefers to get physical with suspects, meaning pummel them with his knuckled up fists. During a confrontation with a black street vigilante gang, our heroes are compared to monsters. The beret wearing, tan-uniform clad brothers refer to Gravedigger as 'King Kong' and Coffin Ed as 'Frankenstein.' As the villain, Calvin Lockhart gives a dynamic performance and makes a serviceable villain.

Director Ossie Davis and television scribe Arnold Pearl penned the screenplay from Chester Himes’ novel. Some of the dialogue is very sharp as are the blaxploitation slogans: “Keep it black till I get back.” “Is that black enough for you?” Several messages pervade this above-average crime thriller about the search for stolen loot. First, the meek shall inherit the Earth. Second, crime doesn’t pay and criminals have to pay to ply their criminal vocation. Harlem blacks should control Harlem, not the Italian mafia. Our heroes force the Italian mafia to turn over their Harlem operation to a Black racketeer. Black women can outsmart white men. One black woman is depicted as a ‘stone fox,’ and she makes a buffoon of a cretinous white police sergeant. The interesting question that arises but is never resolved—and by extension gives “Cotton Comes to Harlem” a surreal quality—concerns the raw, unprocessed bale of cotton. Where did it come from and what is it doing in Harlem? Nobody ever answers this question.