BAMF Blaxploitation Archive – BLACK CAESAR

blackcaesarBAMF’s Blaxploitation Archive is a collection of reviews originally written in the 1990s that appeared in the pages of BadAzz MoFo. This review and many others have been reprinted and collected in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of Blaxploitation, Volume One, which is now available for purchase.

BLACK CAESAR 1973 director: Larry Cohen; starring: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, D’Urville Martin, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund

It was Reggie Hudlin, the director of House Party and Boomerang, who really hit the nail on the head, when he said that the blaxploitation era gave us a set of cultural icons—badass motherfuckers that took no shit. Some of these figures have gone on to reach mythological proportions. Among them is Fred Williamson in Black Caesar.

Williamson is at his best, in this little tale of the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs, who starts out as a shoe shine boy and petty thief, becomes a hardened gangster and hit man, and eventually reigns as the godfather of Harlem. Using his criminal savvy, Gibbs wages a ruthless war against the white mobsters that have been exploiting his people, and manages to seize control over his own bit of turf; only to have his empire destroyed by the betrayal of his friends, and his ho. And as he stumbles through the streets of New York, with a gut fulla hot lead, Gibbs reflects on his choice of friends.

Black Caesar is a very simple story, and one that’s been done many times over. In fact, it isn’t much more than a re-working of flicks like Public Enemy or Little Caesar But, with the gritty backdrop of New York City, and the soulful, ultra funky score of James Brown, Black Caesar emerges as one of blaxploitation’s finer moments. There are some truly classic and powerful scenes in this bad boy. When Gibbs confronts his estranged father, and tries to keep from busting a cap in his old man’s ass, we are seeing one of Fred’s finer moments as an actor. Williamson leads the cast of talented actors, which includes D’Urville Martin and Julius Harris as Tommy Gibbs’ father.

Following the success of Bone, writer/producer/director Larry Cohen was approached by Sam Arkov and AIP, to come up with a film that could cash in on the growing popularity of “urban” films (a.k.a. blaxploitation). As luck would have it, filmmaker-on-the-fringe Cohen already had a story originally developed for Sammy Davis Jr., which was collecting dust. I don’t know about you, but I can’t quite picture Sammy beating the shit out of Art Lund with a shoeshine box. Luckily, Fred Williamson was brought in on the project, and once Stevie Wonder declined doing the score, James Brown was brought in. The rest, as they say, is history.

An interesting bit of trivia surrounding Black Caesar deals with the ending. Cohen’s original cut of the film included the downbeat ending, but it was not well received, and at the last minute all of the prints were cut, allowing Gibbs to live. The end we’ve all come to know with Gibbs’ death is a result of the home video in the 1980s, which was mastered from the original negative, and had the original ending intact. This came as a surprise to those who saw the film in theaters a decade earlier, and also makes the sequel, Hell Up In Harlem seem a bit ridiculous, given the fact that our hero was dead at the end of Black Caesar.

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