Written by: John White on May 7th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: United States, 1973
Writer/Director: Larry Cohen
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris, Minnie Gentry, Philip Roye
DVD released: July 7th 2003
Approximate running time: 90 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Rating: 18 (UK)
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
DVD Release: MGM
Region Coding: Region 0 PAL (UK)
Retail Price: £12.99
Synopsis: Tommy Gibbs was a shoeshine boy come hitman’s assistant until he was fitted up by crooked cop, McKinney. After some time inside he announces himself back on the block by assassinating an enemy of Cardoso’s. He brokers some territory from Cardoso and proceeds to build up his own power base with the help of some mob records he has stolen to blackmail the rich and powerful. His wife Helen starts to dislike who Tommy has become and leaves him for his best friend Joe. After Tommy roughs them up, Helen helps Mckinney to retrieve the mob records and Tommy has to fight for his life.
Larry Cohen wrote and directed this blaxploitation go at the gangster genre. Cohen is a wonderful cult figure who has written for Columbo, weird fantasy films, apocalyptic horror and rogue cop films. Cohen’s scripts are never less than literate, funny and unusual. Black Caesar is one of four films he made with race at it’s core, in fact his directing career started with three of these – Bone, Hell Up In Harlem and this film.
Tommy Gibbs grew up shining the shoes of the man only to find himself in prison because of racist cop Mckinney. When he gets out he starts to carve out some turf for himself and begins with the idealistic notion of making things better for his people, other poor blacks. So he buys out the employers of his servant mother and gives her their luxury flat, and he keeps the ghettos in control so the white Mafia is happy. His power base is built on blackmail and the hate of the white men he uses means that it’s foundations are shaky. Reliant on the now powerful McKinney, Tommy finds himself double crossed and in a desperate fight as McKinney tries to subjugate him. He turns the tables only to fall victim to the people who now survive in the ghetto.
As I will say until I am cold in my grave, all movies need to have Fred Williamson in them. As Tommy Gibbs, he swaggers despite his limp, evinces a quiet intelligence and is a man on a mission. That he becomes seduced by his power and, in Joe’s words, “a white nigger” is brilliantly prepared for in the symbols of the script and Williamson’s ego driven Gibbs. Gibbs is a wonderful character – part patriarch, part civil rights pioneer, part politician.
Black Caesar is a fine gangster drama elevated by an excellent script, some fine montages, and good acting all round. Some parts of the story are not well enough prepared for and the finished script feels as if it was truncated certainly in the area of Williamson and Hendry’s relationship. It has one of the finest scores of all movies from James Brown and has the irresistible Williamson at it’s centre. It is a morality tale, a Greek tragedy and a revenge story all in one. Put simply, it is mighty fine.
MGM’s disc is a good anamorphic transfer of a worn print. Flecks and lines are visible throughout but the colour balance and contrast are good.
The sound is mono but is good with that great music shown off well.
The disc has scene access and a trailer.
You can pick this up for £6 or £7 if you look around and that is good value if only for an amazing score. Well worth a rent and a must own for Blaxploitation or Cohen fans.