COTTON COMES TO HARLEM—Blaxploitation Comes To Hollywood: this dumb 1970 action- comedy hit is often cited as one of opening salvos—if not the first—of that crime subgenre that racked up bullet-riddled thugs, multisyllable cusswords and gratuitous actress nude scenes for a decade. *
“Whitey”, in this case a police captain, speaks: “I understand those two, all right. Too quick with their fists. Too flip with their talk. Too fast with their guns. And two damn black maniacs on a powder keg.” Damn cracker ofay mofo…
The two of whom he disses at would be tough-as-all-hell Harlem detectives “Gravedigger” Jones’ (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin Ed” Johnson’ (Raymond St. Jacques). Attitude in hand, they’re tasked with uncovering who was behind a robbery that stole donation money from ‘Deke O’Malley’ (Calvin Lockhart), a reverend/con man (uh, explain the difference) heading a “Back-to-Africa” movement.
Ossie Davis directed, co-writing the script with Arnold Perl, taken from the novel by Chester Himes. Since Davis was an estimable talent and much-honored man, it’s rather disappointing that this dum-dum, cliché-spewing, tone-wobbling nonsense was his directorial debut. He did bring it in for a miniscule $1,200,000, shooting on location in Harlem. Along with giving edgy comedian Cambridge a lead (he also starred that year in Watermelon Man) and letting the usually impressive St. Jacques go overboard, there were feature debuts for Lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little. Foxx and Little come off best. Crowds lined up and made it a hit, grossing $15,500,000. The movie has a loyal fan base: we’ll allow it boasts a cool poster.
Honkies—clueless or culpable— are represented by John Anderson, Eugene Roche, Lou Jacobi, J.D. Cannon (as ‘Calhoun’) and Dick Sabol. Fast eyes may spot Albert Hall, Melba Moore and Demond Wilson. 97 minutes.
* “dumb” and “1970” —a year that ralphed up Love Story, Rio Lobo, Myra Breckenridge, The Cross and the Switchblade, Norwood, WUSA, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Soldier Blue, C.C. & Company, Zabriskie Point, Hornet’s Nest, Flap, I Love My Wife, Which Way To The Front? and R.P.M.
Cambridge and St. Jacques followed up two years later with Come Back, Charleston Blue, which didn’t fare as well in a ’72 street fight with a dozen other blaxploitation flicks, at least 15 traditional crime pictures (cops, the Mafia, psychos) and a half-dozen kung-fu kickfests.