COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, Ossie Davis' hit film which helped usher in the Soul Cinema craze of the 1970s, makes its way to Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
In Harlem, the much celebrated and flashy Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart, THE BEAST MUST DIE) comes to town in a big way for a rally, claiming to be raising money for a "Back-to-Africa" campaign. Asking $100 as a minimum for a share, poor Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx, “Sanford and Son”) can’t afford that, but the Reverend gladly accepts his $20. After the Reverend is asked to accompany some suits to the DA’s office, masked men with guns draw fire, stealing $87,000 in cash earned from the rally and take off in an armoured car while the Reverend and two cohorts chase after the them in a meat truck. But on the tale of both vehicles are detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge, WATERMELON MAN) and "Coffin" Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques, IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO!); they lose both vehicles during the chase, but a large bale of unprocessed cotton falls out, landing on the sidewalk (ending up in the hands of Uncle Budd), and later, the discovery of raw cotton in an incriminating place is evidence enough for the detectives to realize they must locate the bale to find the stashed loot. What follows is a plot involving the whereabouts of the bale of cotton (leading to a deadly shootout in a massive junkyard), the Reverend hiding out (with two different ladies), Gravedigger and Coffin trying to convince their colleagues that the Reverend is a crook and behind the heist, and a climax that takes place in the Apollo Theater during a wild performance of “Cotton Comes to Harlem”.
An adaptation of Chester Himes' 1965 novel of the same name and released by United Artists, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is considered to be one of the grandaddies of the Blaxploitation genre and it become one of the highest grossing films the year it was released. In the director’s chair is actor Ossie Davis (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Arnold Perl) who injects the film with a certain energy, mixing comedy (there’s some really silly sight gags in the mix) a lot of action, as well as some social commentary in what is essentially a “buddy cop” movie and one of the earliest where the crime-fighting duo is played by African Americans. The film was definitely aimed at urban audiences, as it was shot entirely in Harlem (showing it in a much brighter light than say ACROSS 110TH STREET) and is permeated with sharp-tongued dialog, with characters chattering such sayings as “Is that black enough for you? and "Keep it black till I get back." Not afraid to have fun with common stereotypes of the day, you have such bits as Gravedigger and Coffin crashing into a cart of watermelons and throwing live chickens to control a crowd of protesters to avoid a riot, and the Reverend’s double-crossed caucasian swindling partner (J.D. Cannon from the “McCloud” series) sporting blackface before being lynched by an angry crowd at the Apollo.
An actor who shot to fame as a TV stand-up comedian, Cambridge has good chemistry with co-star St. Jacques, though it’s the large cast of familiar supporting actors (especially familiar if you watch a lot of 1970s sitcoms) who make the film approachable and entertaining. John Anderson (RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY) and Eugene Roche (a TV actor who appeared on “All in the Family” numerous times) lend good support as Gravedigger’s and Coffin’s superior “white” officers, and their roles are actually (and surprisingly) not stereotypical. Lockhart plays his villainous schemer/player role with slimy conviction (something he was good at throughout his career) and Foxx (still a couple of years off from being a household name in millions of living rooms) is humourous as a down-on-his luck old timer who plays big in the last shot of the film (it’s hard to believe he was only in his late 40s when this was made). Those who follow AIP drive-in flicks will recognize gorgeous Judy Pace from UP IN THE CELLAR and FROGS. She plays the Reverend’s opportunist mistress Iris, and she bares all in a scene where she seduces a dumb white cop who ends up naked in an apartment corridor with a brown shopping bag over his head. The cast also includes a pre-BLAZING SADDLES Cleavon Little, Emily Yancy (the nightclub photographer victim of BLACULA), Lou Jacobi (AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON) as the junkyard owner, Leonardo Cimino (THE MONSTER SQUAD) as an Italian mafioso, Vernee Watson (“Welcome Back, Kotter”) as a protestor and SISTERS star Lisle Wilson (also in THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN) as an angry “Black Beret” (an obvious fictional take on a Blank Panther). Singer Melba Moore appears uncredited in a scene at the Apollo and also performs several of the soundtrack tunes. St. Jacques and Cambridge reprised their roles several years later for a sequel called COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE which wasn’t nearly as successful.
Originally released on DVD by MGM over a decade ago as part of their “Soul Cinema” line, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM now arrives on Blu-ray using MGM’s newer HD master. Presented in 1080p and in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the quality here is quite remarkable, with rich colors and amazing detail, giving new life to the outdoor crowd scenes which carry impressive depth. Fleshtones look ultra realistic and grain is never excessive. The source element displays occasional spots but nothing too distracting at all. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English track is extremely clear and without hiss or and noticeable distortion. There are English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing included. The sole extra is the original trailer. (George R. Reis)
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