Wednesday, March 8, 2017
BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Black Caesar (1973)
Black Caesar” would be the vehicle that would cement his box office power. The film was an early credit of independent master Larry Cohen, who already had one pseduo-blaxploitation credit under his belt, with the odd “Bone.” The script combined the plot of “Little Caesar” with the true life story of Bumpy Johnson and was originally intended to star Sammy Davis Jr. When Davis couldn't commit to the project, Williamson entered the picture. American International Pictures stepped in to complete the deal, making “Black Caesar” one of many blaxploitation flicks the company would release. It all adds up to make a minor classic of seventies cinema.
In 1950s Harlem, black teenager Tommy Gibbs shines shoes for a living. After assisting in a gangland assassination and standing up to a racist cop, Gibbs goes to prison for eight years. When he gets out in the early sixties, he's a young man with ambitions of becoming a mob boss. After performing several hits for the Mafia, he's rewarded with a swath of territory in Harlem. Gibbs uses this as the foundation to build his own criminal empire. He grabs a ledger book as financial leverage. He wages a war on the Italians, taking out his enemies. As Tommy's power grows, he starts to doubt his friends and the Black Caesar begins to unwind.
Yet it's not just 87 minutes of a bad-ass dude owning his enemies. “Black Caesar” was released in some markets as “The Godfather of Harlem.” Like Francis Ford Coppela's Mafia mega-hit, the film also concerns the way power corrupts. Tommy's downfall is signaled in a shockingly unambiguous moment where he rapes his love interest. As the story goes on, he sees enemies everywhere, even attacking close friends. Cohen's intentions become clear, painting Gibbs as a tragic anti-hero brought down by his own hubris. When his genuine opponents begin to put the squeeze on him, the Mafia eliminating his allies, Gibbs' receives a gunshot to the chest. The protagonist spends the entire last third of the film in a sweaty frenzy, Tommy desperately attempting to hold a crumbling empire together.
Even as early as 1973, it was apparent that any blaxploitation flick was bolstered by an established funk/soul singer crooning the theme song. For this story about the Godfather of Harlem, the Godfather of Soul was employed to provide the soundtrack. Jim Brown contributes a number of notable songs. The opening song, “Down and Out in New York City” is powered by a funky bassline while Brown roughly shouts the curt but powerful lyrics. My favorite track in the film is “The Boss,” a strutting number devoted to declaring Tommy's supremacy. It makes the character seem like just about the coolest dude ever. Only a few of Brown's contributions overdo it. A number called “Mama's Dead” plays as Tommy mourns his recently passed mother, which seems a little on the noise. Over all though, the music is a excellent and a major reason why “Black Caesar” works as well as it does.
[THE BLAXPLOITATION CHECKLIST: 10 outta 12]
[X] Afros or Sideburns
 Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
 Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[X] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang