Black Caesar is the second film directed by noted independent/low budget director Larry Cohen, and also his second to deal with race and class. Viewed another way, it was his first “Blaxpolitation” film, a chronicle of the rapid rise and sad fall of Tommy Gibbs, an ambitious and ruthless black gangster, the “Godfather of Harlem.” Cohen has made a name for himself in the 1970s and 80s as a maker of quick, inexpensive exploitation films in disreputable genres (usually crime and horror films like It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and others) but has always packed his films full of bigger ideas. And if he didn’t work so hurriedly and cheaply and in these genres – the very things that give his films their loose, rough charm – he’d probably be considered a major American stylist in the vein of Scorsese and his generation of filmmakers (which Cohen is, technically, part of). I once said to a few friends “I wish his films were just 17% better than they are because then they’d be considered masterpieces instead of just a lot of fun.” - but fun they are, no less for their ambition and reach than for what they actually put across in the final cut.
As noted, the film chronicles the life of Tommy Gibbs (played by former football player Fred Williamson) from his young days as a shoeshine boy trying to hustle his way ahead and learn the ways of the mobsters who rule his neighborhood to his time as the man ruling that neighborhood himself. Early in the film we see a young version of Tommy helping out a hitman and running hush money to a racist cop who ends up beating him and giving him a permanent limp. Flash forward to years later when Tommy decides that he doesn’t need to see white gangsters ruling his neighborhood when he’s perfectly capable of the task. A great montage sequence about 15 minutes into the film succinctly shows his rise to power while the James Brown soundtrack does its work, setting the mood and commenting on the action. Once he’s at the top – or near it anyway – his past starts to come back to haunt him: his previously absent father returns to make amends in a particularly uncomfortable, weird, and sad scene, and this, combined with his mother’s passing, cracks the hardened and ruthless exterior Tommy’s displayed for the whole film to this point. And once he proves that he has humanity underneath that, he begins to unravel. His rise was swift but his fall is more protracted as everyone slowly turns their back on him.
What’s unusual – though not unprecedented – is the way that Gibbs is portrayed in the film as very nearly unlikeable and his slow defeat sucks any glamour out of the portrayal of the gangster lifestyle until he ends up, literally, surrounded by garbage. Cohen is telling a classic “crime doesn’t pay” gangland story with its rising and falling dramatic arc, but updating the material to 1973 standards with smarts and savvy, hitting contemporary topical issues along the way. And even now, over 40 years later, it still feels fresh because of Cohen’s techniques – using hand held cameras on the streets to achieve a documentary vibe of the times (NYC bystanders and pedestrians are often staring at either Tommy’s flashy style or at the camera, clearly unaware they’re about to be in a movie), hiring stunt players but still improvising things on the fly, as when he has a driver roll up on the sidewalk to escape potential assassins (in a previous edition’s commentary track Cohen claims he didn’t bother with permits, just drove on the sidewalk and got done filming before he could get in trouble). Fred Willliamson had starred the previous year in the minor hit Hammer but this one solidified his status as one of the leading tough guys of the Blaxploitation movement – the film was successful enough that Cohen shot and released a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, before the year was out (and as a side note, shot that on weekends while spending weekdays working on his next project It’s Alive). And the film’s scenes and ideas have had an impact beyond strengthening Williamson’s cache – both the massacre of some Italian rivals (in a scene that feels more comic than horrific/exciting) and the confrontation of Tommy’s girlfriend and best friend flash forward to scenes in Brian De Palma’s Scarface remake (though they’re played out differently there).
And again, there’s a classic “crime doesn’t pay” story on top, but right there mixed up with it – not even bubbling underneath as subtext – there’s also a barbed look at class and race that’s most definitely sympathetic and understanding to Tommy even if he’s still portrayed as a bad guy. If a viewer were to note, for example, that a corrupt cop holding a gun on Tommy in a corrupt lawyer’s office decided to humiliate him by forcing him to again shine his shoes, and that right when he says “give me a shine like you used to” there’s an edit to the shoeshine kit underneath an American flag, and wanted to make the association that Cohen is perhaps suggesting that the law and corrupt money in American politics combine to keep African Americans down, one could certainly do that. Or one could watch the movie and leave that kind of reading alone. It’s one of Cohen’s best films no matter which way you choose to watch it.
- Patrick Brown