Written by: Carroll Jenkins on June 14th, 2008
Theatrical Release Date: USA, May 27th, 1970
Director: Ossie Davis
Writers: Ossie Davis, Arnold Perl
Cast: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx, Emily Yancy, John Anderson, Lou Jacobi, Eugene Roche, J.D. Cannon, Mabel Robinson, Dick Sabol, Cleavon Little, Teddy Wilson
DVD released: January 9th, 2001
Approximate running time: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Sound: Dolby Digital Mono English
Subtitles: Spanish, French
DVD Release: MGM/UA
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $14.98
Cotton Comes to Harlem is the proto-type for all the blaxploitation films that followed, and contains all the elements that characterize the later films. It would be the first such film, but can’t qualify as blaxploitation since it was written and directed by Ossie Davis from a novel by a black author, and all the lead players are black. As they quip in the film, “Is that Black enough for ya?”.
The movie is at core a gritty crime drama with frequent comic scenarios, but even the comic characters can come to a violent end. The backbone of the movie is the buddy cop team of Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). They are rogue cops who resort to unconventional means to keep the peace among their people, and are constantly at odds with the police commissioner.
The main protagonist is Rev. Deke O’Malley who is young, well spoken, and charismatic with a huge following. He is almost messianic as he delivers his message of changing the lives of black folk and freeing them from the oppression of whites. His proposition for doing this is to fund a ship called the Black Beauty to take them all back to Africa! Conscriptions are $100 per brother or sister to fund this noble enterprise and ensure passage upon the mother ship. When the money is stolen and murder ensues, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed must track down the perpetrators.
Being sourced on a Chester Himes novel, there is a whole ‘nother level of subtext regarding race relations, politics, and social commentary. Coffin Ed says he’s going to retire, and Gravedigger asks, “Who will save the Black folks from the White folks?”. Coffin Ed responds, “Who will save the Black folks from themselves?”.
The supporting cast is exceptionally strong including Redd Foxx as a junk dealer (pre Sanford and Son) and Clevon Little in a bit as a really strung out junkie who gets slapped around by Coffin Ed. Look close and you can spot Denise Nicholas (Room 222) as an extra in the mob scene at the police station. Also featured are great location shots of Harlem, including a marquee for Putney Swope.
This is one of the early Soul Cinema releases and looks fine, though it retains that 70’s grain. It is presented full frame, but does not appear to be open matte. It may be cropped on the sides but the composition is not adversely affected. Subtitles are French and Spanish with English Close Captions.
Ossie Davis is best remembered for presenting the Eulogy for Malcom X, and for appearing in Bubba Ho-Tep as the Black J.F.K.. Cotton Comes to Harlem is interesting on a number of levels, especially as a vision of gritty Black cinema before the crackers took it over.