United Artists/Formosa Productions
Directed by Ossie Davis
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.
Written by Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl
Based on the novel by Chester Himes
Music by Galt MacDermot
Cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld
Edited by Robert Q. Lovett
A lot of people will ask me as what my influences were as a writer and while I have maybe half a dozen I can certainly point to, one of those half dozen has to be Chester Himes. He was what I consider perhaps the best African-American writer of detective/crime fiction, having learned his trade in truly the hard way: he served 20 years in prison. He started writing while in prison and after being paroled his career took off. He wrote nine very successful novels about a pair of black Harlem detectives called Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson and it was most of those novels I read growing up. A movie version of one of those novels, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM was made into a wildly successful movie during the blaxplotation boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s and even today, over 30 years later, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM stands as not only a worthy adaptation of the wonderfully gritty work of Chester Himes but also as a work of cinematic art. Plain and simple: it’s a good movie. It works not only as a superior example of the blaxploitation film but also as a crime/buddy cop/action/ film as well. It always cracks me up that most people who will claim they don’t like or haven’t seen blaxplotation movies will say that they have seen COTTON COMES TO HARLEM multiple times and love it. Even today it’s most certainly worth a viewing and I can heartily recommend it.
The Reverend Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart) is the head of a Back To Africa movement that has gained a lot of support in the Harlem community and he’s about to take his movement national. During a fundraising rally there’s a robbery and $187,000 dollars worth of donations goes missing. So does Reverend O’Malley. NYPD Detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St Jacques) were at the rally and failed to stop the robbery even after a wild shootout and car chase. Over the hindrance and objections of their superiors Gravedigger and Coffin Ed set out to get the money back, using their street smarts and knowledge of Harlem to navigate their way among pimps, hustlers, gangsters, Black Nationalist revolutionaries, prostitutes, drug dealers, junkies, gunmen and The Mafia. And it’s an exciting and entertaining navigation as we go along with these two tough, wisecracking detectives every step of the way. As their captain puts it they’re: “too quick with their fists, too flip with their tongues and they’re a couple of black maniacs sittin’ on a powderkeg!” Now don’t you miss the days when a movie could have dialog like that and get away with?
Coffin Ed and Gravedigger figure that O’Malley is their best way to get to the money and they’re on the right track all right since O’Malley had been setting up a robbery with Calhoun (J.D. Cannon) who was supposed to make the robbery look like the work of a rival black militant group. Calhoun botched it up and during the getaway was forced to hide the money in a bale of raw unprocessed cotton. The bale of cotton fell into the hands of local junk dealer named Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx) who in turn sold it to somebody else. Now Uncle Budd has gone up and died under mysterious circumstances so now nobody knows where the bale of cotton full of money is and so we spent the next highly entertaining and action filled 90 or so minutes following Coffin Ed, Gravedigger, The NYPD, The Mafia, the poor people rooked out of their money, Reverend O’Malley and his psychotic girlfriend Iris (Judy Pace) and anybody else who hears about this money chasing all over Harlem trying to find it and the question that everybody is asking is this; “What the hell is a bale of cotton doing in Harlem?”
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM still works today as a superior crime/cop buddy flick due to the strength of the direction by Ossie Davis who obviously had a lot of fun doing this movie and delighted in the Harlem locations and settings. There are few cop movies that the authenticity of the neighborhood of Harlem as this one does and it works. You’re right there with Coffin Ed and Gravedigger as they scour Harlem on the trail of the bale of cotton and they run into a wild and colorful mix of characters as they do so. I also like how we see a lot of things that Ossie Davis as a director has in this movie that would become a staple of action/cop buddy movies in later films such as “Lethal Weapon” such as the bickering pair of heroes and the obligatory scenes where the pair of wildass cops are yelled at by their captain and even after they’re taken off the case they still work it. There’s also a terrific use of humor in this movie that doesn’t interfere with the dramatic stuff and is wonderfully integrated into the life of the neighborhood. I’ve never seen a cop movie that has the community so involved and integrated into the story the way Harlem is involved in how this particular case is resolved.
And the performances are a major part in the enjoyment of the movie. Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques are simply excellent in their roles as the Harlem detectives and they play those roles as men who are total professionals who walk a fine line that black cops back in the 70’s must have had to walk. They know how to play their white superiors to get what they want while serving justice and maintain their respect in the community. There’s a great scene where they have to face down a street riot and turn away an angry mob based on the strength of their more than well-earned reputation on the street. Godfrey Cambridge is the more relaxed of the two, more strategic, more thoughtful and using well placed humorous wit to defuse volatile situations while Raymond St. Jacques is a smoldering volcano of near psychotic rage which he displays in a scene near the end of the movie where he nearly beats the Reverend O’Malley to death. And Calvin Lockhart walks away with the acting honors of this movie. His Reverend O’Malley is a cunning schemer who plays everybody he can for anything he can and even when he’s looking down the barrel of a gun is still trying to be the playa. And I certainly cannot forget to mention the remarkably beautiful Judy Pace who plays O’Malley’s girlfriend/partner who ends up committing murder for him and proves to be in her own way as dangerous as anybody else who is looking for the money.
So should you see COTTON COMES TO HARLEM? Hell yes. Despite it’s age it still works as a terrific movie full of humor, action, great performances, a tight crime story full of plot twists and the best thing about it is that it’s never boring, Yeah, some of the slang and the clothes and cars are outdated but the spirit of the movie is one that has still lasted. If you’re a fan of buddy cop/crime/detective/action movies or if like me you remember the good ol’ days of blaxplotation or if you don’t remember them and want to see what a superior example of the genre was like, do yourself a favor and Netflix this one.
Rated R: There’s some nudity here, thanks to Judy Pace which I didn’t mind at all and The ‘N’ word is used quite a bit. I know in our PC times it might be frowned upon but I understand the time in which this movie was made and more importantly I understand the context in which it’s used so if I don’t mind I don’t see why you should. But to each his or her own.