Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, March 8, 2017


“Hammer” might have been forgotten by cinematic history but Fred Williamson was clearly already on his way to becoming a star. “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.

What a difference a year makes. In “Hammer,” Fred Williamson struck the audience as a performer somewhat uncomfortable on camera. In “Black Caesar,” he's the very ideal of charisma. From his first proper scene in the film, in which he coldly executes a rival gangster in a barber shop, Williamson captures a sense of coolness. When dressed in his best suit and hat, strutting down the streets of Harlem, his strength as a performer – his charisma, his confidence – become apparent. Williamson is the center of a bloody gangland saga. When leaping through a room and gunning down three guys, he never looses that composure. Williamson's effortlessly assured exterior grounds “Black Caesar” even during its most chaotic moments, such as a lengthy sequence where a mob family is bloodily gunned down over their pool.

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.

“Black Caesar” was only the second movie Larry Cohen directed, though he had dozens of credits as a writer. Despite being early in his career, Cohen already exhibits an interesting visual style. As Tommy begins his criminal career, we're greeted to a montage of images. In-between the exploding vehicles and splintering billiards tables are shots of Williamson, deck out in full gangster get-up, firing a machine gun. Cohen's approach to violence is also fast and brutal, bright red squibs exploding inside quick cuts. Later, after the character is shot in the chest, Cohen straps his camera to his lead actor's torso, creating a disorientating P.O.V shot. By the time the finale comes, where Gibbs forces his greatest foe to don black face and shine his shoes, “Black Caesar” has reached a fever pitch. The film's visual presentation becomes as frenzied as the lead character's scattered mind.

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 film's biggest flaw is honestly more of a nitpick. Despite being a period piece, it is obvious several times that “Black Caesar” was shot in the early seventies, instead of the early sixties. Despite what it appears to be on the surface, “Black Caesar” is a little more then the bad-ass, adolescent power fantasies that the genre often became. It has some interesting thoughts in its head concerning the way power corrupts, how people can become the thing they hate the most. The combination of Williamson's star making performance, Cohen's stylish direction, and Brown's striking music makes “Black Caesar” way better then you ever would've expected. [8/10]

[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

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