Release Date: February 7, 1973
Genre: Action, Drama, Crime
Director: Larry Cohen
Writer: Larry Cohen
Starring: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund, D’Urville Martin
WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW
Perhaps the most underrated and underappreciated filmmaker in cinema is Larry Cohen. He started out his career as a writer for studio-based television show to getting his opportunity to write and direct his own movies. He was a pioneer of the independent film industry by creating the most innovating low budget movies of our time that dealt with social issues and commentary on American culture. His well-known films include “It’s Alive” which is about a mutant baby being born and “The Stuff” which is an intergalactic organism with the taste and texture of yogurt that gets the consuming public addicted. Those films have become a staple in the horror community. Nowadays Cohen focuses more of screenplay writing and has written many scripts for some blockbuster movies (ironic since he’s always had a disdain for Hollywood). After recently watching a documentary on Cohen’s career, there was one film that stood out as I was watching it that peaked my interest. It was a film from 1973 that is regarding by many as one of the best movies you’ve never seen before. The movie I’m referring to is called “Black Caesar!”
“Black Caesar” (or “Godfather of Harlem” as it was called in the United Kingdom) is a crime drama that tells the story of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson). Tommy is raised in Harlem, New York city during the 50s. As a boy, he would be beaten by a cop named McKinney who would also throw racial slurs at him. The stigmatization of these incidents leads him to a path of crime. When Tommy becomes an adult in the 60s, he joins the mafia and becomes head of the black crime syndicate in Harlem. As his power and influence grows, Tommy splinters from the mafia starting his own empire and eliminating the competition. Like most crime films, as soon as Tommy reaches his peak, he starts to decline as numerous people are out to get him.
“Black Caesar” was hailed as a critically acclaimed masterpiece for a low budget independent movie. The response from the viewing audience led Cohen to make a follow up film called “Hell Up In Harlem,” which would be released the same year in December. The godfather of soul James Brown composed the music for the film which became a hit soundtrack and many musical pieces would be sampled by prominent hip hop musicians in the 90s. On average, the movie ranks in the Top 3 among Larry Cohen’s best films trailing behind the aforementioned horror flicks.
The film is garnered as a blaxploitation film which if you aren’t familiar with the term it means an ethnic sub-genre of exploitation movies in which African American characters and communities are the subject and are portrayed as the heroes rather than victims of brutality and segregation. The term was coined by Junius Griffin who was the head of the Los Angeles National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during this period. (1) While technically a blaxploitation movie, I didn’t see it this way. I found “Black Caesar” to be an original crime film with flair and style. There is so much to enjoy from this movie. Everything works clockwork from the characters to the story to the action to the music. Being a fan of crime movies, I’m surprised it took me this long to discover this film.
There’s enough going on in this movie to please fans of gangster movies. There’s action, violence, colorful characters. It follows the same character arc as in the first two “Godfather” movies and “Scarface.” You have someone climbing the ladder and reaching the top of power only to slowly start falling down the mountain and crashing into the ravine.
Fred Williamson who plays Tommy owns the film throughout its duration. Much like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson (in his early years of course) Williamson was a professional football player who played in the American Football League during the 60s and transitioned into acting after his playing days were over. He is strong, confident and handsome and he oozes of machismo all throughout this film. Through his brutal forceful tactics, he earns the respect of his fellow henchmen and the ire of the crime syndicates in New York. Always carrying his Mauser C96 “Red 9” pistol, Williamson dominates the screen as he sets out on his plan to create his own criminal empire and seek revenge on those who may have wronged him in the past. How Williamson turns out could have been overplayed or underplayed by an actor with more ego, but he brushes that aside and creates a magnifying character with a similar arc to Michael Corleone or Tony Montana. Williamson proves he can be a leading actor on many scales.
The rest of the supporting cast is small but fit into the plot. You have Gloria Hendry who plays Helen, a singer that Tommy falls in love with and marries. As Tommy is building his gang, she becomes unhappy and tries her best to get him to stop while he can much to no avail. You also have D’Urville Martin who plays Reverend Rufus, a preacher who grew up with Tommy in the same building who gets some involvement with Tommy’s group but keeps his distance due to his oath to God and the Church. Then you have Art Lind who plays the bigoted cop McKinney. He is as dirty as they come, and Lind shows that throughout his scenes. He continues to berate and slander Tommy even during his ascension into the crime world. Tommy has the stomach to handle McKinney until the time comes to take him out once and for all.
The film is primarily shot in New York City and Harlem with one scene being shot in California at Larry Cohen’s house (which you will see appear in many of his films). Cohen, born and raised in New York City gives the audience an intimate look of life in the big city especially in its neighborhoods. Cohen was able to get a lot of scenes done in Harlem due to making deals with the local gangs and from there you see a part of New York City that isn’t shown much in today’s movies and television series. It shows the racial makeup and the tensions going on during the time. Remember, this was before the Civil Rights Act.
I will caution you that ‘Black Caesar’ is as graphic of a movie as it could be. Not so much in terms of violence, but there are suggestive themes and concepts. Obviously, there is a lot of racial slander between the characters, again in part due to the time period that the movie takes place. There is also a rape scene and a domestic violence scene that could make you uneasy. It sure did for me. These things would not pass today in our society and culture. I don’t think this movie would even be released in theaters today unless they cut a bunch of things out and clean up the language.
James Brown wrote and compose the music to “Black Caesar.” The Godfather of Soul provides a mix of smoking R&B to the sound of funky disco. The music is appropriately fitted within the movie to give it emotion, character and intensity. Many people consider his soundtrack to be the best album Brown has ever released.
People credit Larry Cohen with the concept of “stealing” scenes. What “stealing” means in this context is the ability to shoot scenes with no permits. There were no permits for this movie, so everything that was shot was by stealth and trickery. For example, the overhead shots in the movie were done by setting cameras up on corner roofs of buildings or on light posts. The car chase sequence was a real car chase where roads weren’t blocked off for shooting and you had bystanders going about their business. The scene where Tommy is shot and is stammering throughout the road and sidewalks, you get a mixed reaction from people. Some in typical New York fashion ignore his cries for help while others express great concern or shock. You see some people reaching out to Tommy to see if he needs assistance. Getting those raw unscripted reactions from ordinary people heightens the quality of the movie.
If I had to rank the Top 10 Gangster Movies, I would put “Black Caesar” easily in the Top 5 or maybe in the Top 3. As stated in the beginning, it’s a movie with a lot of flair, and style. There’s enough going on to satisfy the gangster movie fan. Overall, it’s very underrated and entertaining. It’s a surprise gem that sadly gets overlooked due to the heavyweight titans of “The Godfather Trilogy,” “Scarface,” “Goodfellas,” etc. If you’re able to find this movie at your local movie store, Amazon or other streaming services, you should check this movie out. If you enjoy it, you’ll be ready to move forward in Larry Cohen’s film chronology which only gets better.
- Originally offered to Sammy Davis Jr., who turned it down.
- When filming in Harlem, Larry Cohen was accosted by local gangsters who threatened to disrupt the shoot unless they were paid off. Instead, Cohen offered them small roles in the film. They helped so enthusiastically that they attended the premiere to sign autographs.
- The name Caesar is never spoken in the movie.
Shine Em Up Good
Down And Out In New York City – James Brown Song
You’ve Never Seen Me
You’re The Big Brain
Sammy, Don’t Disfigure The Man
Sauce Needed Some More Meat
The Boss – James Brown Song
We’ll Make Sure The Garbage Is Picked Up
Play A Couple Tunes
Somebody Call Down For A Shine?
I Want Him Nice And Fat
Sleep Well, Mr. Gibbs
Been Waiting 25 Years To Kill You
I Miss My Old Bed
Heal Him Lord