Sold as blaxploitation, but really more a solid "Afterschool Special" family/courtroom drama, featuring an excellent cast. Olive Films has released on Blu-ray CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME, the 1975 drama co-financed and distributed by American International Pictures, written by Leonard Lamensdorf, directed by Joe Manduke, and starring Moses Gunn, Rosalind Cash, Bernie Casey, Keith Wilkes, Madge Sinclair, Stack Pierce, Thalmus Rasulala, Antonio Fargas, Logan Ramsey, Vince Martorano, Charles Lampkin, Stefan Gierasch, Tierre Turner, and Laurence Fishburne. More layered and even-handed in its racial politics compared to most 1970s blaxploitation offerings (turf, position, money, and especially organizational threats trump skin color every time), CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME’s story of an innocent young black teen accidentally shot by police may seem relevant today to some viewers (for probably the wrong reasons). However, what distinguishes CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME, aside from several spot-on performances (young Fishburne is a natural), are its attempts to buck its blaxploitation conventions, presenting (relatively) rounded, flawed characters trying to make sense of their lives in trying situations. There’s an original trailer included on this very sharp 1080p HD widescreen Blu transfer.
In two weeks, Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton (Keith Wilkes, 1975 NBA Rookie of the Year, 4 NBA Championships) is going to do what nobody in his neighborhood has ever done: make something of himself legally—the city’s best basketball player is going to college on an athletic scholarship. Naturally his hard-working, upright parents, Sam and Leona Hamilton (Stack Pierce, VICE SQUAD, WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II and Madge Sinclair, CONRACK, CONVOY) are proud, as are many in the neighborhood, including hero-worshipping 12-year-old Wilford Robinson (Laurence Fishburne, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE MATRIX). Wilford’s mother, Sarah (Rosalind Cash, THE OMEGA MAN, THE MONKEY HU$TLE), lives with Wilford in the same apartment building as her friends, the Hamiltons, yet her domestic life is far more troubled. She’s on Welfare, claiming a bad heart, while her lover, Charlie (Thalmus Rasulala, BLACULA, WILLIE DYNAMITE) is charming and handsome...but also selfish and commitment-shy. Cornbread has successfully dodged all the temptations his rough neighborhood has offered, including drugs and running numbers for local bookie One-Eye (Antonio Fargas, FOXY BROWN, ACROSS 110TH STREET), but he can’t dodge police bullets when he’s mistaken for a suspected rapist and shot down in a dark, rainy street by black officer Larry Atkins (Bernie Casey, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, TV's GARGOYLES) and white officer John Golich (Vince Martorano, THE CANDY SNATCHERS, THE SEVERED ARM). Wil and friend Earl Carter (Tierre Turner, DEVIL TIMES FIVE, BUCKTOWN) see everything, as does shop owner and friend Fred Jenkins (Charles Lampkin, HAMMER, THE BLACK GODFATHER), but soon the truth of the situation gets lost as the police and the justice system close ranks to protect their own, even to the point of physically intimidating witnesses. The Hamiltons hire attorney Benjamin Blackwell (Moses Gunn, SHAFT, THE HOT ROCK) to bring a civil suit against the city—not for the money, but to clear their son’s name, whom the police and the newspapers insist was the rapist.
If you define “blaxploitation” as it’s most often used today—at least in terms of titles from the 1970s—as exploitation pieces featuring the-then novelty of predominately black casts, with lots of action, violence, and sex punctuating the crude, pulpy storylines, then you certainly can’t include the quiet, thoughtful, sad CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME into that genre. However, considering the relative rarity in the mid-1970s of any movies featuring predominately black casts, with dramatic themes aimed at satisfying black audiences, as well as taking into account CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME’s distributor AIP was the studio most associated with the genre, with releases like SLAUGHTER, BLACULA, BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA, BLACK CAESAR, COFFY, SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM, SLAUGHTER’S BIG RIP-OFF, HELL UP IN HARLEM, SUGAR HILL, FOXY BROWN, TRUCK TURNER, ABBY, SHEBA, BABY, BUCKTOWN, FRIDAY FOSTER, J.D.’s REVENGE, and the similarly-structured (and better remembered) COOLEY HIGH, released just a few weeks after CEM, then it’s not too surprising that CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME would, by association, get lumped into that group.
According to several references, there’s some question as to CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME’s original source material. The movie credits Ronald L. Fair’s book, Hog Butcher (which I haven’t read), while the AFI catalogue states that real estate developer-turned-screenwriter Leonard Lamensdorf wrote the story based on his novel, Hit the Open Man. Either way, Lamensdorf and director Joseph Manduke (lots of episodic TV, like HARRY O and BARNABY JONES) are stearing clear of the blaxploitation genre’s more outsized conventions here, going more in the direction of SOUNDER rather than SLAUGHTER. That may be why the opening section in particular plays so sunny and light and overly broad in the Hamilton home, almost like a black HAPPY DAYS (Cornbread’s poetic, too-heartfelt equating of a basketball to food and riches plays like amateur night in Dixie, not helped by Wilkes’ earnest but unskilled delivery). Interestingly, Lamensdorf drops in some pretty intriguing tangents that give the movie a bit more depth and dimension than you’d expect, something you don’t normally see in most mainstream blaxploitation. There’s a fascinating scene, so well acted by Rosalind Cash, where we’re trying to figure out if she’s lying about having a heart condition just to stay on welfare, with the welfare lady’s tacit aid (the corrosive, destructive effects of welfare are only just hinted at here; Wil’s ethical crisis over telling the truth of what he saw is fueled by his desire to keep his mother’s welfare checks coming). Even better is the complicated relationship between Sarah and Charlie (that could have been its own movie), with Sarah’s frustration at charming Charlie’s aversion to commitment, to working hard, and to being an understanding surrogate parent to Wil (his selfish blow-up at Sarah because the two boys are staying up late, watching TV, and thereby blocking sex with Sarah, shows how inadequate he’d be as a husband and father). When Leona and Sarah help cover for Wil stealing a candy bar, it’s too bad there wasn’t time to explore the parents’ questionable choice to do so. We get a too-brief glimpse at the obstacles Cornbread must have dodged to stay on the straight and narrow in the neighborhood (Sam tells a recruiting One-Eye to leave his boy alone), and there’s a terrific, even-steven sparring match between the self-hating Bernie Casey and the taken-aback Moses Gunn, boyhood friends, who try and get a moral one-up on each other in their approaches to dealing with the black youths in the neighborhood (Casey’s character, studying to become a teacher, calls them savages, and he’s the “keeper of the savages” as a cop—a nihilistic, zero-gain attitude that Gunn recognizes leaves no hope for anyone). All of this is great stuff, enacted by pros...it’s just too bad these brief digressions weren’t further explored or expounded upon.
Unfortunately, CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME’s main thematic concern—the corrupt police force, made up of blacks and whites, forcing a cover-up of Cornbread’s death—isn’t handled with nearly as much assurance. It’s bad enough that Cornbread’s actual death—quite nicely plotted beforehand with some snappy editing as the cops mix up the real perp and Cornbread—is treated like poor opera, with a ridiculously overblown chorus and music cues, and heavy-handed symbolism (the shattered bottle of orange pop—Cornbread’s favorite) ruining the emotional gravity of the situation. What’s worse is that the police corruption is portrayed in such a one-dimensional, ham-fisted manner, with all the cops on the force, black and white, determined to make Wil shut up. We’re told by an unmoved Casey that white officer Martorano feels guilt and doubt about the shooting, but critically, we’re never actually shown that (the movie plays fair, though, by having both cops shoot—watch the gun muzzles—although it’s amusing to read old reviews that state only the white cop shot Cornbread). And we never get any shading to the evil department officers who demand Wil’s silence. By the time we’re at the coroner inquest, CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME’s mixture of courtroom intrigue and political polemic is necessarily diluted by the big, blank wall of oppressive racism that’s dropped on the police force as a whole—it’s more cartoon than drama, and we guess the resolution will be either black or white (if you will), rather than the movie’s previous, more interesting, shade of grey.
The 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen Blu transfer of CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME looks pretty spiffy, with very nice fine image detail, tight grain structure, correctly valued colors, and only occasional source material imperfections like scratches and dirt. The DTS English mono audio track for this dialogue-heavy movie, is adequate for the job. English subtitles are available. An original trailer is the disc's only extra. (Paul Mavis)
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