“Cotton Comes to Harlem” at 50

Thanks to Criterion once again we took the opportunity to fill in a gap in our cinematic education last night. We have had the occasion to mention Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) many times on this blog on account of having written about many of its principal artists, but hadn’t ever seen the legendary film, which many credit with launching the “blaxploitation” genre. I hadn’t given it urgency on that account — at NYU we were told (somewhat imprecisely) that Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was the crucial film. But Cotton is much more like it, both in timing and in content.

In fact, content was one of the criticisms made at the time about the film. Co-written and directed by the respected black actor and activist Ossie Davis, Cotton Comes to Harlem is not one of those overtly socially conscious message films of the type Sidney Poitier had been making for a decade. (In fact, apparently inspired by this film and others like it, Poitier’s movies would come to resemble this one more than the other way around). This is a straight-up cops and robbers story — it just happens to take place in a black setting, with a mostly African American cast, reflecting realities and concerns of interest to blacks but as part of the fabric, not as a self-conscious moral parable. This is how it is groundbreaking. The black content is matter-of-factly self-evident. Vincent Canby of the NY Times, for example, was one of those who chided it for just being a tongue-in-cheek action thriller. But it was adapted from a Chester Himes novel. Himes, who’d been writing since the ’40s, is considered by many to be the African American Dashiel Hammett. African Americans get to be “Hollywood”, they get to tell genre stories; everything doesn’t have to be a hagiography about the heroes of the Underground Railroad.

One of the film’s many joys is that it is like a convention of character actors and future stars, many of whom got their career breakthroughs as a result of the film. Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques play a pair of NYPD detectives with the distressing nicknames of Gravedigger and Coffin Ed. The villain, played by Calvin Lockhart, is a con man/preacher who swindles the people of Harlem into donating $87,000 for passage on a ship that will take them to Africa. The dough is immediately stolen in a spectacular, costumed armed robbery. It is hidden (for some reason, symbolism, I guess) in a bale of cotton, which makes the rounds through Harlem’s undergound. Redd Foxx, in his first screen role, plays a Harlem old timer, as does his future Sanford and Son cohort Don Bexley. Helen Martin (later of Good Times and 227) plays a church lady; a pre-Blazing Saddles Cleavon Little is a junkie, and there’s also the familiar Teddy Wilson, and Judy Pace (fresh from Peyton Place and about to be in Brian’s Song) plays Lockhart’s gun moll. John Anderson and Ajax spokesman Eugene Roche are a pair of white detectives; Lou Jacobi is (what else?) a Jewish merchant. J.D. Cannon, best remembered as McCloud’s supervisor, is some kind of revolutionary. Galt MacDermot of Hair wrote the music, including the tune to the theme song, which was sung by Melba Moore.

That’s a lot of star power, but ultimately the star of this movie is the neighborhood itself. Good or bad, I love to watch movies of this period that are shot on location and soak up the record of what once was. The camera pans to follow some characters and I find myself entranced by the store fronts. In 1969, when this was filmed, you had tons of small businesses that were still around from decades earlier — hat stores, furriers, groceries, bars, and so forth, with those beautiful painted and neon signs. And those big boxy 70s cars, Just pleasure to watch. All that, plus a cool performance in the actual Apollo Theatre!

It would also be a huge error to say the film lacks black consciousness. It is all ABOUT it. Gravedigger and Coffin Ed are authority figures. The film includes details like a fictionalized version of the Black Panthers. There are references to social problems of the time, poverty, drugs, and so forth. And there are smart, satirical jokes: at one point, a car chase climaxes with the pursuer skidding into a wagon full of watermelons. St Jacques starts to eat a piece of watermelon that falls in his lap, Cambridge slaps it out of his hand. It’s just that it isn’t one of those “learning and growing” message stories about equality and brotherhood or something. It is merely an EXAMPLE of black excellence.

Cotton Comes to Harlem was a box office success, obviously. It was followed by the 1972 sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue, in which Davis did not participate. And there were many, many imitators of its formula…