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BLACK CAESAR (director/writer: Larry Cohen; cinematographers: Fenton Hamilton/James Signorelli; editor: George Folsey, Jr.; music: James Brown; cast: Fred Williamson (Tommy Gibbs), D’Urville Martin (Reverend Rufus), Gloria Hendry (Helen), Philip Royce (Joe), Art Lund (McKinney), Val Avery (Cardoza), Minnie Gentry (Gibbs’ mother), Julius Harris (Gibbs’ father), Omer Jeffrey (Tommy as a boy), Patrick McAllister (Grossfield); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Larry Cohen; MGM; 1973)
“It plays to urban black audiences’ fears and fantasies.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cult director Larry Cohen (“It’s Alive!”/”The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover”/”God Told Me To”) is the writer-director-producer of this kick-ass, low-budget, blaxploitation film that’s shot in only a few weeks and in too crude a way to be taken for anything more serious than a clever reworking of the old-fashioned gangster film. But it gets your attention as it keeps the emotions brewing on a steady boil so that you can feel the black man’s pain of not being able to belong to the establishment without feeling like an outsider. Cohen’s quirky ideas about justice and morality prove to be the film’s best asset, along with a charismatic hardboiled performance by Fred Williamson. It pays tribute to Warner Brothers’ 1930s gangster movies and gives those Cagney mad dog hoodlum thrillers a splashy update by raising the level of graphic violence to a new high and moving the scenery to black Harlem. The immensely popular film with urban audiences follows this storyline with a sequel called ‘Hell Up in Harlem.’

It traces the blood-soaked rise and fall of vicious gangster Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) from the time he was a shoeshine boy in Harlem running errands for white mobsters in 1953 until he was bumped off after reaching the top rungs of the crime world in 1972. As a child living in the slums of Harlem he was beaten and had his leg broken by racist corrupt cop McKinney (Art Lund), who accused him of shortchanging him of $50 of payoff money from the mob. Tommy comes from a black stereotypical background of a submissive maid mother and father who abandoned the family. Filled with anger and always aspiring to be a gangster, he vowed to protect his brainy but weakling friend Joe (Philip Royce) in order to one day make use of his smarts for his own crime organization. The cocky, manipulative, and pimp-dressing Tommy gets his start in the Big Leagues by executing on his own a barbershop rub-out as a sample for the mafia boss Cardoza; he then slyly maneuvers his way into the organization and protects himself by stealing a set of ledgers with the names of the crooked politicians on the payroll. The bad cop McKinney who crippled him as a kid is now a big wheel in the mob and because he’s listed in the ledger Tommy is able to get away with blackmailing him into a partnership. Tommy then bumps off the Italian mob’s big boys en masse in a Hollywood swimming pool. All the while James Brown’s ‘Ain’t It Cool to Be a Boss’ loudly plays as Tommy takes over Harlem’s crime syndicate from the whites, supposedly to make sure the blacks get heat in the winter because now the blacks will be the landlords. It turns out the new boss is as bad as the old boss, and he’s soon perceived as a white nigger–following the same path of destruction as the white mobsters (Tommy buys into the existing white power structure and uses their same methods to operate). This infuriates his aspiring singer girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry), who breaks his heart by two-timing him for Joe. When Tommy catches them in bed, he kicks them out of his mansion and gives Joe a whupping.

There doesn’t seem to be any greater message other than criminals are violent dudes, whether black or white, and there are lingering pains from childhood that never dissipate. What dazzles is the action sequences, especially, in the last thirty minutes, where Tommy’s ex-girlfriend Helen, now living with his resentful friend Joe in a furnished Manhattan apartment, is forced by McKinney to keep him occupied in bed while the ledgers are stolen from his safety deposit box. A severely wounded Tommy, from McKinney’s hitmen, rides in a taxi on the sidewalk due to midtown gridlock while chased by the contract killers on foot. Tommy miraculously escapes and it leads to his final encounter with McKinney. The racist McKinney, after killing Joe in the elevator, pulls a gun on Tommy trying to retrieve his ledger from a downtown office building. Before killing his nemesis, McKinney can’t resist taunting him again by demanding a shoeshine when he spots a shoebox. But Tommy manages to overcome him and smashes his face bloody by pummeling him repeatedly with the shoebox and then smearing black shoe polish over his bloody face and making him sing the minstrel song “Mammy.” A dazed Tommy returns to his childhood Harlem as a dying man, where he’s set upon in a garbage-strewn empty lot by a teen gang who mug him and beat him to death.

It plays to urban black audiences’ fears and fantasies, and gives a credible voice about black outrage and its beef against American society in a more convincing way than mainstream films of that time ever did.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”