Monday 14 May 2007

Black Caesar (1973) Larry Cohen

We start off in 1953 and I thought it was Chicago because the black kid is shining some guy's shoes under the L to distract him long enough to get shot dead. It's not the L though, because the song is Down and Out in New York City and it's sung by no lesser an iconic black figure than James Brown. If we needed any more hint as to the target audience, the kid's next job is to deliver cash to a cop in an apartment block somewhere and the cop gets to use the word 'nigger' in his very first sentence. He gets to beat him too, for good measure, with his nightstick. No wonder the kid moves to the dark side, no pun intended, lying there in a hospital with a broken leg courtesy of a cop's nightstick. Fast forward twelve years and Omer Jeffrey has grown into Fred Williamson, but the character is the same. His name is Tommy Gibbs and he's the Black Caesar of the title.

He gets his foot in the door by taking over one square block of territory that the Italians really don't care for. He's soon wandering around stamping his authority on things, with black henchmen, white lawyers and ladies of both colours. He has ambition, this young man, and he has able assistance from his very bright brother Joe. He sets his sights on a lot of targets and that cop that broke his leg, who is now Captain McKinney, in charge of one of the biggest precincts in New York, is high up on the list. He's played by the wonderfully sleazy Art Lund who knows every racial epithet in the book and would have been lynched if he set foot in any cinema showing this on initial release.

I'm not surprised in the slightest that this one appears on the list of the top thirty blaxploitation flicks of all time, right up there with other 1973 films like Coffy, The Mack and Cleopatra Jones. This one, in the hands of exploitation maestro Larry Cohen, who wrote and directed, is carefully designed to have the maximum possible effect on its target audience: the very definition of exploitation, after all. More than any other blaxploitation film I've ever seen, this one seems perfectly tailored to have its black audience shouting at the screen. Every white guy is a racist, an overt one at that, and yet Fred the Hammer and his brethren successfully rise above all of it. The crowds would have hurled abuse at every racial slur and laughed at every excuse.

In truth the Sicilian stereotypes are terrible but who cares? This is about the Man doing it to the black man and he's a big bad mother who deserves all that Fred Williamson can dish out. Williamson is great here, even though it's early in his career when he still looked like a young OJ Simpson and he looked better with age. This was only his fifth film and he had a long career of highs and lows still ahead of him. Well, more lows than highs and Fist of Fear, Touch of Death counts as a whole handful of lows. It takes a lot more than one From Dusk Till Dawn to make up for that one.

This one has more obvious comparisons though. It does for the blaxploitation genre exactly what films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and especially Scarface did for the old gangster genre in the thirties. Still more appropriate is the Al Pacino remake of Scarface, which was far more lurid and out of control but less believable and less enjoyable to my mind. Sure, upstanding citizens hate Tommy Gibbs, the Black Caesar, but he's still the hero and he has a definable shared enemy, the system with the white man in charge and the corrupt cops doing his bidding. In that sense, Williamson can't lose but he does a fine job anyway.

I know some of the other cast members but mostly by name since it's a while since I delved decently into the genre: D'Urville Martin, Julius Harris and Don Pedro Colley, for instance. I'll see two of those three again in the sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, which was made two years later by the same people. Larry Cohen was never a consistent director, but thre are some cult classics in his resume for sure, from It's Alive to Q: The Winged Serpent. This one's early in his directorial career, but he'd been around for decades as a writer, especially for television. It's rough around the edges and that's an understatement, with continuity errors galore, but it's powerful nonetheless and it has some truly great street scenes that were presumably shot guerrilla style given that some of the passers by seem a little too interested in what's going on. Far better than it ought to have been.

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