The Cohen Case Files: Black Caesar (1973)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen’s first excursion into the blaxploitation genre (unlike many people, I don’t consider 1972s Bone to be a blaxploitation film), Black Caesar is a solid morality tale with gangster film trappings.  If not for the profanity, nudity, and graphic violence on display, it could be a Warner Bros. gangster film from the ‘30s in the way it quickly charts the brutal rise and eventual fall of a criminal kingpin.  But Cohen’s gutsy choice to avoid making Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson)–the antihero who serves as the titular character–likable helps set it apart from the films that inspired it and gave it more grit than many of the blaxploitation films that rapidly crowded theaters in the early ‘70s.

The film starts in the mid ‘50s as a teenaged Tommy (Omer Jeffrey) first falls into the world of organized crime.  Hustling money by shining shoes, he accepts payment to keep a gangster from making a getaway as a rival mobster kills the gangster.  Brought into the business by the hitman he assisted, young Tommy has his first run in with McKinney (Art Lund), a crooked New York City cop, when the officer accuses him of stealing money from the payoff he was supposed to deliver.  McKinney slings a torrent of racial slurs at young Tommy as he beats him mercilessly, eventually breaking his leg.

The story then jumps ahead ten years.  Tommy (now played by Williamson) has just been released from prison (presumably there on a trumped up charge from his encounter with McKinney, but it’s never made clear) and returned to the city.  Hobbled by his leg which failed to heal properly, he is a man eager to put the criminal education he received in prison to use.  He immediately jumps on an open mob contract and–in an impressively acted scene by Williamson–performs his first murder.  Using this act to get in the good graces of Cardoza (Val Avery), the local Sicilian crime lord, Tommy immediately starts putting together his own criminal empire on the streets of Harlem.

With Joe (Philip Roye), a childhood friend who used his intellect to become a lawyer while Tommy was in prison and Rufus (D’Urville Martin), another childhood friend who is now a sham minister, Tommy runs a number of different scams to gain power and money.  But when he snags ledgers that show payments from the various mob families to cops and politicians, he steps on too many toes and finds himself facing a bloody gang war that inevitably brings him up against his old nemesis McKinney.

To say that Black Caesar is a familiar story would be an understatement.  We’ve seen this type of rise and fall of a gangster film many times but Williamson really helps the film to stand out.  Despite the childhood demons of poverty and racism that drive him, Tommy Gibbs is not a misunderstood antihero that just needs the love of a good woman to turn his life of crime into something positive.  As written, he’s a mean bastard, capable of killing friends to increase profits.  Even though he’s a charismatic performer, Williamson never tries to make Tommy likable.  He plays the character the way he was written, using his imposing physical presence to great effect as he threatens, rapes, and kills his way through the film.

While this choice to follow an unpleasant protagonist yields interesting results, it also makes the film surprisingly hard to watch in several places: Tommy is verbally and physically abusive to his wife Helen (Gloria Hendry), and, in a particularly disturbing scene, he rapes her after she expresses disgust with his way of life; In one of the few positive things Tommy tries to do in the film, he buys the condo where his mother is a maid and gives it to her, only to have her refuse it because he’s grown up to be everything she prayed he wouldn’t; Tommy’s unexpected reunion with his long-absent father (Julius Harris) is fraught with tension as Tommy slowly makes it clear that he plans to kill him.  Williamson keeps the film watchable during these scenes (aside from the distressingly intimate rape sequence–I can’t stress how much that scene bothered me), and they do add some character details to Tommy, but that doesn’t make them any less difficult to take in.

The fact that these scenes stick out in my mind makes me feel that Cohen was more interested in crafting a character study and that his heart wasn’t in many of the requisite action scenes.  These sequences are fine, for the most part–an assault on a Mafia compound is particularly impressive–but they pale in comparison to the numerous character moments.  Only in a stunning climactic scene featuring Tommy’s final confrontation with McKinney did the film successfully meld its elements of dark character study with violent action.

With a strong story, Williamson’s great performance, and perfect use of several James Brown songs on the soundtrack, Black Caesar was an instant hit that spawned Hell Up in Harlem, a hastily made sequel that was released later that year.  Unlike many other blaxploitation films that came out at the same time, Black Caesar has stood the test of time.  I think this is due to the fact that Cohen took the story seriously, actually exploring the casual racism and unfair class restrictions that drove Tommy to be such a monster.

Fun Fact: Cohen’s first choice to play Tommy was Sammy Davis Jr.  I have a hunch that I wouldn’t be writing about the film in such glowing terms if that had come to fruition.

James Dixon Sighting: As an assassin working for McKinney.  He was also listed as an associate producer in the credits.  This is the first time I noticed that.

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