Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

Directed by: Ossie Davis
Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace,
Red Foxx and John Anderson

Two nut-cracking, hard-punching streetwise soul brother cops Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St Jacques) are hot on the trail of a missing $87,000 of scam money handed over to slippery self-proclaimed race leader Reverend Deke O’Malley by the good people of Harlem.  The loot, now stashed in a bale of genuine unprocessed cotton, is being understandably hounded all over Harlem by the cops, the Mafia, black militants and just about any other oddball eccentric character that could be squeezed into this wildly inventive and charismatic film.

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) is undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary and important films of 1970s African-American cinema.  While the tough guy acts of SHAFT (1971), SLAUGHTER (1972) and SUPERFLY (1972) would later commercially shape the progression of black-action cinema, it is often forgotten that the innovatively hip and dangerously aggressive independent films like Melvin Van Peebles’ seminal SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) shook the very core foundation of early 70’s cinema.  While COTTON COMES TO HARLEM may be perceived by some as a safe MGM financed production, it is just as influential as it is experimental.

Ossie Davis’ directorial debut is self-assured, beautifully stylish and bursting with energy. It becomes a wonder why he never had a more prolific career in film direction.  Davis is a fine actor and we wouldn’t have wanted to live without seeing his radical portrayal of President Kennedy in Don Coscarelli’s  BUBBA HO-TEP (2002).  The screenplay is packed with off-the-wall action, hip hyperactive characters, and daringly provocative dialogue that manages to avoid sprouting excessive profanities. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is an instantly captivating film.

Calvin Lockhart, perhaps best remembered for his role in the dippy Amicus werewolf flick THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), wonderfully plays the treacherous Reverend Deke O’Malley.  O’Malley falls somewhere between a community leader and a backward militant evangelist. His ‘Back to Africa’ campaign promises Harlem’s residents that for a nominal fee of $100 he will build a glorious ship named The Black Beauty to take the disenfranchised back home to the promised land.  His impassioned proclamation “Am I black enough for ya?” proves both a popular rallying cry and a defiant quip to white authority figures.  Of course, none of this militant rousing claptrap washes with world-weary cynical Harlem cops Grave Digger and Coffin Ed who are powerless to act as people hand over their hard earned dollars to O’Malley’s fraudulent cause.  The public campaign is disrupted by a gang of orange gas-mask wearing robbers, completely shielded to prevent revelation of skin colour as much as facial identity, who make off with the collected stash.  The money goes astray during the chase and is rumoured to have been stashed in a bail of cotton that was thrown from the robber’s speeding van.  So the recurring question asked around town is “what’s a bail of cotton doing in Harlem?”  Who was behind the robbery?  Harlem’s Italian Mafia, the crooked police, black militants or O’Mally himself?

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM certainly isn’t without humour, but Davis doesn’t allow his film to become a simple run-around farce.  Davis keeps the humour visually active, even bordering on slapstick, but retains integrity to underpin the film’s energy while infusing social commentary.  This film is just as much a valid portrait of the characters, their beliefs, the local community, and their daily lives as it is about a missing bail of cotton stuffed with stolen loot.

The central underlying theme of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is human exploitation. Prejudices exist throughout the world but director Ossie Davis chooses not to pinpoint racial issues.  The screenplay chooses to dispense with the white supremacist element from Chester Himes’ source novel and instead delivers a moralistic fable about human desire, greed and exploitation.  COTTON COMES TO HARLEM may illustrate the strength and solidarity of Harlem’s black community but it also refuses to shy away from depicting black people exploiting other black people.  On this aspect alone, Ossie Davis’s film becomes fairly visionary, especially when placed alongside the suburbanised ghetto & guns films that the genre would evolve into throughout the 70s.  Indeed, nothing can disguise the seething hatred and utter contempt Coffin Ed (a truly unhinged performance from Raymond St Jacques) feels towards Deke O’Malley scamming poor people out of what little money they have.

Screenwriters Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl (director of 1972’s MALCOLM X) deliver a witty, albeit slightly altered, adaptation of Chester Himes’ 1965 pulp crime novel.  In the literary world Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed would feature in an ongoing series of Harlem Detective novels all penned by the distinguished African-American author.  Cinematically, both Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St Jacques would return to their tough cop roles in 1972 for COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE (a film that still eludes me to this day!) based on Himes’ 1966 novel The Heat’s On and directed by television director Mark Warren.

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM has fantastic performances, stunningly crisp photography, and Melba Moore’s bluesy theme song ‘Black Enough’ that will take a hold of your very soul and refuse to let go!

Contributed by Tristan Thompson