Cotton Comes to Harlem Reviews
Instead, this is a hilarious film that is many things: comedy, crime film, satire, and buddy picture. There is tons of humor here, and, while I wasn't laughing all the time, it is quite funny. Most of the humor is of the slapstick vartiety, but some of it comes from wordplay, visuals, and situations, which can sometimes be dry in natiure.
This is the story of two unconventional detectives who try to catch a man who is pushing a "back to Africa" trip. In reality, that man is a fake, a huxster, and the two detectives have to try to catch hi and show the world who he really iis.
It surprised me that Ossie Davis directed this, because I didn't expect this type of film from hi based on my knowledge of his latter day resume. This is a great film though, It is quite funny, and fillled with substance and subtext, It's not overly preachy, but it's pretty obvious that this film has a message and isn't devoid of something more meaningful.
This isn't a campy blaxploitation film. In watching it though, one can see that this represents a high water mark for black films made for black people by black people. The only thing it really exploits is stuff that black people want to see. The subject matter is funny, and a bit surreal, because really, who thinks of cotton when they think of Harlem? It's an integral part of the film however, so it is necessary.
No matter who you are, there is bound to be something in here for everyone. This is a great film, and a true lost classic. Bravo Ossie, bravo.
Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are two black cops who patrol the streets as well as do the detective work in Harlem. A new reverend, Deke O'Malley, comes to town and makes everyone believe he has Jesus on his side and freedom in his words. The detectives track down some recent string of crimes and all signs point to the reverend being corrupt. Can the cops prove the reverend is the root of all evil and not a savior?
"I'm really sick of looking at you. You're really one ugly child."
Ossie Davis, director of Kongi's Harvest, Black Girl, Gordon's War, Cool Red, and Crown Dick, delivers Cotton comes to Harlem. The storyline for this picture is below average and a bit disappointing. This is a relaxed cop drama where everything is straightforward and fits together perfectly (with some funny scenes here and there). The acting is just okay and the cast includes Godfrey Cambridge, Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx, John Anderson, Eugene Roche, and Cleavon Little.
"Black people need hope like everyone else."
I grabbed this off Neflix recently because I am a fan of blaxploitation cinema. This was not one of the better films in the genre. I felt everything was too straightforward and the detectives were a bit cliché. There were some good lines; but overall, this is very average.
"Don't you step on my ribs!"
Great stuff, recommended.
Let's start with some "recent" entertainment history.
First, lead actor Godfrey Cambridge was a popular stand up comedian who appeared several times on The Ed Sullivan Show during the 1960's. He stars as a serious detective with his partner to stop a scam on black New York city residents.
Second, Red Foxx, another comedian who achieved rave status with black audiences in the 1950's, recording several comedy records that were filled with sexual humor and abhored by white America. Foxx, a junk dealer, appears occasionally through the film dealing in, of all things, a bale of cotton. Hence the title: Cotton Comes to Harlem.
Mildly entertaining today, the movie was a sensation in the early 1970's as a respectable alternative to white society films. This is a good sample of what the races were shown during the day. Hollywood was willing to exploit anything it could and it surely made its mark in this sublime comedy.
In 1971, the pre-eminent answer to white hero worship was the biggest and most memorable character "Shaft".
Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones
Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson
Calvin Lockhart as Reverend Deke O'Malley
Judy Pace as Iris
Redd Foxx as Uncle Bud / Booker Washington Sims (junk dealer)
Emily Yancy as Mabel
John Anderson as Bryce
Lou Jacobi as Goodman
Directed by Ossie Davis
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
Written by Ossie Davis
Chester Himes (Novel)
Cinematography Gerald Hirschfeld
Editing by Robert Q. Lovett
Distributed by United Artists
Release date(s) May 26, 1970
Running time 97 mins
Our film opens with two cops keeping an eye on a shady religious figure, who seems to be working up a large following. Of course he is getting people to donate their hard earned money for him to make a trek back to Africa. He of course intends on stealing the money, so he hides the dough in a bail of cotton and stages a robbery. The cops know what he's up to but other people get wind and the bail of cotton it keeps getting stolen and disappearing until the cops don't know where to look or who to trust anymore.
I like how our two cop characters are more realistic compared to other films in the blaxploitation genre. Their less focused on being "cool" and come across tough by just being more normal, hard working detectives. This is no doubt one of the reasons the film isn't as popular as audiences enjoy the over-the-top coolness of such kats as Shaft and Superfly. Though director Ossie Davis keeps our cops normal (other than their character names), he does add some nice comedy touches to the film. An example is during a car chase, we have a pick pocket steal a women's purse, run out into the street only to be hit by the car the cops are chasing. Sequences like this brought a smile to my face.
If I had to complain about one aspect of the film it has to be the third act and the film slows down to an almost grinding halt. The film's climax takes place in a theater the film starts focusing on the woman dancing for what seems to be 10 minutes. An attractive women she was but holy hell it was it completely pointless! The rest of the film just meanders away and never truly recovers.
Overall though this was an entertaining Blaxploitation film but fans will no doubt would rather see super cool kats like Shaft as opposed to our cops Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. I say give it shot. The humor is good but not obtrusive and the characters are interesting (interesting enough to inspire two rarely seen sequels). I recommend the film if one can get through the humdrum climax.
I really enjoyed myself.
Issues such as race, hope, and justice have really been on my mind lately since I've been following Barak Obama's political campaign.
I think this movie touched on these feelings beautifully.
And, it gave a well put point of what people will do with hope and how quickly it can turn into a deep distrust.
I also thought it was so poignant that some people couldn't fathom a bale of cotton in Harlem.
As to what happens, that's complicated. Reverend Deke O'Malley is running what is probably a scam involving a ship called [i]Black Bertha[/i], which people will go from Harlem back to Africa on. None of them seem concerned about the fact that Africa is an awfully big place but that no more specific detail about their destination is given. I would suggest, if I can do so without seeming too pretentious about it, that Africa is more a symbol than a place to these people. To them, I think, "Africa" means a mythical homeland where all their wrongs will have been redressed and where they will be happy and prosperous, where they will no longer live in ghettos, were they will be in control of their own fates. It will not, for example, be the slums of Cairo; it will not be the war-torn Sudan. (It will not be pretty much anywhere in North Africa, where an awful lot of pale-skinned people live. I once had a substitute teacher in high school who was actually born in Egypt, and several of the black kids got really pissed off when he called himself African, because he looked white to them.) And wherever it is, it will be Christian; they are led, after all, by [i]Reverend[/i] Deke O'Malley.
Anyway, there's $78,000 that gets "stolen" from Rev. O'Malley's organization. It turns out that this is a further scam; he's paired up with Mysterious and Evil White Guy (gun runner?), and the two of them together will take the money and, um, something. It would help, I think, to have figured out exactly what Mysterious and Evil White Guy was--he wasn't in the Mafia, because that was someone else, I think. Anyway, the money gets hidden in a bale of cotton, for some reason--no one seems to know why--and some vague sort of hilarity ensues. Mostly we see this through the eyes of a couple of cops--"Gravedigger" Jones and "Coffin Ed" Johnson--but I'd say about a third of the movie is other people. (I really don't want to draw a Sartre parallel, but I will if I have to.)
The thing is, this was written and directed by [i]Ossie Davis[/i], for whom I previously had a great deal of respect. Now, not so much. This is a ridiculous movie, though it is pretty entertaining. I'm just not sure it's intended to be entertaining in this way. It's funny, for example. Now, I'm sure some of it is intended to be funny, and I'm sure some of it is just how badly slang-intensive dialogue from one era translates into another. But oh, man!
I'm not sure how many blaxploitation films we'll get to, here. It in part depends on the library, I suppose. Do they have [i]Shaft[/i]? Do they have [i]Superfly[/i]? I can't say. They did not seem to have either of the [i]Cleopatra Jones[/i] movies; we'd've gotten to them by now. We'll just find out as we go along.
We're almost to the letter D, for the curious, and it looks like we'll have to give [i]Coriolanus[/i] a miss, as the library's copy is in pretty bad shape. I will say that it's a Time-Life/BBC production, an odd combination, that seems to feel the need to let you know all through Act I that it [i]is[/i] Act I. In case you forget at some point.