Dir. Ossie Davis
Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx, Judy Pace, Lou Jacobi, Eugene Roche, J.D. Cannon, Cleavon Little
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"We may have broken some heads,
but we've never broken any promises." - Coffin Ed Johnson
Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) do what great cops do best; they always get their man and if THE MAN says, "Don't bust heads," they sure as hell make sure to bust all the heads that need busting to clean the scum off the streets of Harlem in glorious NYC.
And, they're cool.
Coffin Ed suavely serves up a sardonic wit, whilst Gravedigger Jones favours a more broad approach to inspiring yucks. As drawn by novelist Chester Himes, these cats have been immortalized in one of the ultimate Blaxploitation pictures of the 70s by none other than screenwriter-director Ossie Davis, one of the greatest African-American actors of all time (lovers of Spike Lee will never forget Davis as the philosophizing old man in Do The Right Thing and genre fans have long admired Davis as JFK - YES! - JFK in Don Coscarelli's immortal Bubba Ho-Tep).
Ed and Jones were perfect heroes for helmer Davis to march through their action-comedy paces. These two guys, as penned by Himes and immortalized onscreen by Davis, seem practically born with crime-fighting in their blood and they do the citizenry proud by never kowtowing to the rules imposed upon them by those uptight honkies running the NYPD and the city at large. No job is too big, small or untouchable. The People love 'em to death.
And, they're damn funny.
Call them an ebony Abbot and Costello if you must, but for whatever laughs they wrench consistently from us, they're mean buggers with lightning fists and sharp-shooting pistols, always ready for action.
Now, every good cop picture has a mystery to be solved, but the one which plagues Cotton Comes To Harlem is a doozy. The primary question that drives the picture is thus:
"Now what in the hell would a bale of cotton be doing in Harlem?"
Not just any cotton. We're talking raw, untreated and oh-so pure fluff, straight off the fields in the deep south. Buried within it is the quarry of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. A sleazy slime ball common criminal, the "good" Reverend Deke O'Malley (a deliciously ooze-dripping Calvin Lockhart) has been running what our boys know is a scam. The slick-talking man of the cloth has been running a major scam (or so our super dicks are convinced) to secure oodles of money from the good, poor, hard-working folks of Harlem in order to transplant them back to their roots in Africa and out of the mire of America which snatched up their forefathers in the first place.
And the secret's in the cotton.
Davis generates a fun, slam-bang cops and robbers steam engine replete with a breakneck pace, plenty of babes, oodles of action and one of the best damn car chases on the streets old NYC - ever.
Replete with a great soundtrack, loads of laughs and sheer dogged detective work, Ossie Davis plunges us into a grand, two-fisted crime picture.
St. Jacques and Cambridge acquit themselves with aplomb and the rest of the cast is jam-packed with a who's who of African-American comic talent like Redd Foxx (Sanford and Son) and Cleavon Little (Blazing Saddles), plus a stalwart team of grizzled character actors including Lou Jacobi, Eugene Roche and J.D. Cannon.
This great working actress should have been a much bigger star than Hollywood let her be, though as Vicki Fletcher in the famous TV nighttime soap opera Peyton Place and the one of three beauties who "love" a philanderer to death in Three in the Attic, let her prove to be no slouch in the popularity and talent department.
Blaxploitation was a long and popular sub-genre in the movies, but Cotton Comes to Harlem manages to transcend that label by being one of the best cop pictures of the 70s - period. Sadly, Ossie Davis only directed five feature films and one TV movie. He clearly had a great command of the camera and could easily dance rings round most studio hacks of the period and certainly held his own with the period's better filmmakers.
And, of course, there's Judy Pace.
Damn, she is fine!
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4-Stars
Cotton Comes To Harlem is available on a gorgeously Blu-Ray that captures all the grain, grit and colour of the 70s from Kino Lorber. In Canada, the title is distributed by VSC (Video Services Corp).
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