Directed by Ossie Davis
Written by Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl, from the novel by Chester Himes.
Starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx.
Ossie Davis (along with this wife Ruby Dee) was a cultural icon, known for breaking into acting in 50s and 60s in roles in which he insisted on playing with dignity and gravity, in contrast to the way that Blacks were often portrayed in films. But Davis wanted to do more and managed to turn in mind to writing and directing. The result, Cotton Comes to Harlem, was instrumental in creating an entire movie genre.
The movie is based upon a novel by Chester Himes, a series of mysteries featuring his “Harlem Detectives”: Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones, two NYC cops who use hard-nosed tactics to go after dangerous criminals.
In the movie, Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) are brought in after a scamming preacher (Calvin Lockhart) is robbed of his money, which may be inside a bale of cotton. Half of Harlem is out to track it down.
This is a film about character. Johnson and Jones are cold blooded when it comes to solving a case, but also have a mordant sense of humor about life. Indeed, the movie is as much a comedy as it is a detective film: it never stops for laughs, but they come through wisecracks and a skewed view of life.
Godfey Cambridge is one of my favorite actors of the time, always willing to take chances or give a wisecrack, and his Gravedigger has a sly sense of humor throughout. Raymond St. Jacques is also good as Johnson, and Redd Foxx is memorable as a junk dealer* who is instrumental in finding the cotton. Also in the cast are Cleavon Little, Judi Pace, Eugene Roche,** and Lou Jacobi.
The movie was made for a moderately low budget for the time, and I suspect it was released to modest expectations. But the film became a hit. Black audiences wanted to go to a film where black characters made up most of the cast, and white audiences were attracted to the humor and action sequences. With Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft – both released the next year – a genre was born: Blaxploitation films.
While the genre may seem dated today, Cotton Comes to Harlem isn’t. Davis, who always acted with dignity, directed a film with a dignified heart beneath the action, which makes it still hold up pretty well.
*A couple of years before Sandford and Son; reports are that he got the TV role for his performance here.
**Another actor who I love.