Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Unseen #34: Black Caesar

Why’d I Buy It?: Picked it up for a song at a Hollywood Video Liquidation.

Why Haven’t I Watched It: I shame my family and myself.

How Was It?: To say that Black Caesar plays more like a gangster film that happens to have a principly Black cast, rather then a blacksploitation film, might sound like a tremendously dickish thing to say. But it rings true. I’m hardly one to ghettoize genre filmmaking, but the fact is that Black Caesar does not evidence the gaudy fashion, slack scripts, and general air of incompetence that one usually equates with Blacksploitation. Lets face it guys to be a cinephile is to be a fetishist. And that’s putting it politely. We get a fair amount of mileage from things that do nothing for the general populace. And when you watch a Blacksploitation film, it comes with a very specific set of criteria, criteria that does absolutely nothing for a whole lot of people. Lets face it, there’s a reason Black Dynamite didn’t become a box office dynamo.

Black Caesar on the other hand could be played as a pretty great crime film to just about any audience. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t partake in some of the garish pleasures of the genre. Its just not beholden nor dependant on them. Instead it thrums along with a genuine efficency, centers itself on a magnetic performance by Fred Williamson, and has a few genuinely awesome scenes. A stylish unexpected verite style, and more brains and style then you would think a movie called Black Caeser would have.

Black Caesar follows the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs. An ambitious Black Gangster who after an early stint in Prison “buys” a block of Harlem from the Italian Mob in exchange for a well placed hit.

But Tommy has ambition, smarts, and a ruthless killer instinct that takes his sights far beyond the rundown block. And by the time the Mob realizes they “should” stop him, its far too late.

A lot of the time Blacksploitation is more fun in theory then practice. Dependant upon individuals scenes rather then a whole. But Black Caesar has so many great scenes that they string together, and almost by accident end up making a great movie. An execution in a nightclub segues into a great scene involving a night club singer pressed into service, which moves into a detour to California, which cuts into a great Montage of Fred Williamson strutting around Harlem to James Brown’s “The Boss.”, which leads to a stunning confrontation with Williamson’s deadbeat Dad.

The film is directed by exploitation legend Larry Cohen, who has made an entire career out of coming up with concepts far better then he can realize. But he really brings it in Black Caesar bringing the truly unexpected to play. Its by far his best directed film.

The film really kicks into high gear in its relentless final third….


In which an ambushed and gut shot Williamson struggles to find help in his Harlem Neighborhood, while the mafia, turncoats in his own gang, a corrupt police force, and the mean streets itself abruptly turn on him.

Its an intense, sweaty, and completely unexpected scene, that puts you on the edge of your seat. The entire time. An unexpected blast of cinema verite, directed by Cohen with high style.

Black Caesar isn’t perfect. It features a rape scene that is disturbingly non-chalant. And the second act between the spectacular rise and fall is the old perfunctory stuff we’ve seen a thousand times before.

Still I’d argue that Black Caesar is a must see. Not just for fans of Exploitation cinema. Not even for fans of Crime cinema, but for anyone who can appriciate a kick ass, low to the ground gangster film.


Unknown said...

Great soundtrack by James Brown which makes it worth seeing for that alone! If I'm not mistaken, didn't they make a sequel? Yeah, HELL UP IN HARLEM which isn't as good, I thought.

It's weird that you mentioned this film as Turner Classic Movies just showed SHAFT over the weekend - another great blaxploitation film.

Bryce Wilson said...

The soundtrack is pretty fucking fantastic.

I had no idea there was a sequel, I'll definitely check it out (warning in mind).