Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
|The Robbins Recipe: "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" meets "Shaft"|
|Cotton Comes to Harlem has been released
in that Soul Cinema series, along with all the old Pam
Grier and Slaughter movies, and there is good and bad
news about that.
|In reality, it's a pretty interesting
caper film involving several parties dashing around
Harlem, competing to find a bale of cotton stuffed with
$87,000. The most comparable modern film would probably
be "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", in
that the plot is fairly similar, and it strikes a similar
balance between drama, action and humor. Of course, it
was made in 1970, so pacing is a bit slow for our modern
tastes, and the car chases and action scenes, which were
really sweet in their own time, are not that impressive
by modern standards. Furthermore, you may find some of
the portrayals offensive if you listen with today's more
sensitive ears. Even thpough the film was written and
directed by a respected and intelligent man of African
heritage, I doubt if such a man today would relish images
of black detectives crashing into a watermelon truck
while chasing down a bale of cotton. A certain amount of
self-deprecatory humor would still be present in today's
films, but the topics and symbols would be different.
(Unless outright mockery of the stereotype itself, ala
Spike Lee's Bamboozled).
But my overall point is that this is not a blaxpoitation film, but simply an enjoyable film made by and about black people.
The story was written by the popular and raunchy novelist Chester Himes, who wrote several stories around the same two detectives, but his books are much sexier and their tone is much darker than this movie, which focuses in on the search for the bale of cotton, not on the sex and racism. (Himes focused on black protagonists doomed by a combination of white racism and self hatred.)
The screenplay was written by actor-turned-director Ossie Davis, who also directed. Ossie directed several films after this one, but never again with such success, and he returned to performing after 1976. In fact, Ossie still performs, although now well into his 80's, and was nominated only a couple of years ago to be chairman of the board of the Apollo Theater. A respected orator, he spoke at the funerals of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. You certainly know his voice, since he did the famous commercial that said "a mind is a terrible thing to waste"
I guess, as the East Coast representative of our bi-coastal team (I was born in and lived many years in New York), I should point out that it is a real treat to see the action actually shot on the streets of Harlem. I lived not far from there, and in those days it was common to see white guys hanging out for various reasons. Other white guys had more exotic reasons, but I always enjoyed heading out there with my roommate for the music and the food (There is a Fun House connection here. One of my college roommates was not only from Harlem, but later had the luck to father our sometime humor columnist, Stone Cold). So it was great nostalgia for me to see the streets as they looked when I was a senior in college. Some of the action even centers around the legendary Apollo theater. (I've never been inside. The outside was unprepossessing, to say the least)
taste, the plot has too many characters and digressions.
It's one of those deals where the D.A. turns out to be
just some guy hired to say he was the D.A., and the guys
who robbed the money were actually hired by the guy they
robbed, and there are all sorts of sub-plots involving
militants, an innocent junk dealer, con men, girlfriends
who may or may not be involved, and I don't know what
all, and I occasionally got lost in the digressions. But
that was pretty much OK. It was an atmospheric film, and
the confusion was used as part of the atmosphere, ala
"Lock, Stock .."
I really enjoyed the humorous Godfrey Cambridge and the very humorless Raymond St Jacques as the two honest but unorthodox detectives, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, who "broke a few heads, but never any promises".
Can be confusing at times, but very entertaining movie, plenty of fun, and a great ending.
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