Forty years ago today, Chester Himes’ novel about two rough and abrasive New York detectives who were clearly before their time hit theaters and helped launch a Black revolution in film. If you haven’t seen it, you should check out “Cotton Comes to Harlem.”
Released in theaters on May 26, 1970, this funny but slightly dated film centered on Detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) dogged pursuit to recover $87,000 of poor black families life savings, which have been stolen in a Back to Africa swindle and concealed in a bale of cotton, which keeps changing hands.
With a reputation for breaking heads, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed both are annoyed at the success of the charismatic black nationalist leader Reverend Deke O’Mailey (Calvin Lockhart) who is selling trips back to Africa to the poor on the installment plan. When his truck is hijacked and a bale of cotton stuffed with money is lost in the chase, Harlem is turned upside down by NYPD’s Finest, the Reverend, and the hijackers. When a barbecued O’Malley is apparently ‘robbed’ they get their chance to take him and his cohorts down.
“Black Enough (Ain’t Now, But It’s Gonna Be”) by Melba Moore
Directed by the late Ossie Davis and based on Himes’ 1965 novel (the eighth of ten “Harlem Domestic” detective novels that he wrote), this film along with “Watermelon Man” and “The Learning Tree” were widely credited with launching what would commonly become known as the “Blaxploitation” era. While the plot drags in spots, the film delved in issues that were groundbreaking for it’s period including the burgeoning pro-Black movement as well as creative, yet satirical artistic impressions.
The film highlights are it’s performances (as well as spotting cameos by such actors as the then-unknown Cleavon Little) and the on-location shooting in parts of New York where a camera had rarely ventured previously. Redd Foxx shows up in a small part as a ragpicker that led to his role in TV’s “Sanford and Son.” Another plus is that this film also showcased the talents of the woefully underused Judy Pace who sparkles in her brief screen time.
One of the most influential films of it’s period, “Cotton Comes To Harlem” kicked off Black film’s most profitable and popular decade by delivering a “refreshingly different detective action yarn with soul and humor” featuring and an unbeatable mix of “fast-paced adventure and comic lunacy.” The film spawned a mildly successful sequel, “Come Back Charleston Blue” in 1972 (which is special because it was the first film I ever paid money to see at a theater!).
Happy Birthday to this Black Film Classic that is one of the films that continues to serve as a strong foundation for the modern Black Cinema movement.
“Cotton Comes to Harlem” trailer