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A tough, gritty blaxploitation classic not to be missed
on 5 August 2005
Black Caesar (1973) is one heck of a good movie. I hate the term blaxploitation that is used to describe movies of this genre because it implies that these sorts of films are somehow second-class entries in the world of cinema. Black Caesar is a first-class ride from start to finish, taking as much from classic gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s as it does from earlier blaxploitation films such as Shaft. Larry Cohen gave us a tough, mean, dirty, gritty film that tells it and shows it like it is: plenty of cursing, gunplay, blood, profanity, nudity, and racism. I have heard that the starring role was originally written for Sammy Davis, Jr. Nobody loved Sammy more than I do, but there's just no way he could have done the things that Tommy Gibbs does effectively. A lot of people deride the acting skills of Fred Williamson, which makes no sense to me; the man is just fantastic in this film.
Tommy (Williamson) grew up on the streets of Harlem, where the living was hard. When a corrupt, racist cop smashed up his leg at a pay-off exchange gone wrong, young Tommy's future was set. Eight years in prison taught him everything he needed to know to pull off his master plan of becoming the man who runs Harlem. Just after he limps back into town, he scores a mafia hit in broad daylight and uses that audacious act to nose his way into the local Family. Back then, the Mafia didn't make a habit of embracing blacks, no matter how useful they could be. All Tommy asks for is a block in Harlem to call his own; he gets it, and a new reign of terror begins as Tommy and his associates begin cleaning house. At first, they talk about helping the blacks in the community at the same time, but this whole thing is really just about the money and the power. Ironically, Tommy finds himself working with the same slimy cop who broke his leg as a youth, but he's got the guy by the short hairs thanks to his acquisition of certain evidence against him.
As you might expect, a couple of blocks in Harlem is just the beginning for Tommy. He quickly expands his operation and puts the screws to the Italians running the show in New York. He becomes, for all intents and purposes, "the man" and gains control of all of Harlem. All the power and money can't make him happy, however; no one seems to appreciate the things Tommy can give them, especially his mother and his wife. As things start unraveling in his personal life, he is set up for a fall - and his Italian "friends" are ready and willing to take him down. The final half hour of the movie is nothing short of intense, as Tommy tries to deal with betrayal and simply stay alive. His final encounter with the racist cop who has tormented him for so many years makes cinematic history, as far as I'm concerned.
The music makes this fantastic film even better, as the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, supplies the funky soundtrack. Songs such as Down and Out in New York City and Mama's Dead sharply define pivotal moments and make sure the film always fires on all cylinders. It's hard to believe Black Caesar was filmed in only 18 days, especially given some of the elaborate chase scenes taking place on New York streets. This is a masterpiece of a low-budget film. Maybe a couple of the sociological aspects of the film don't play as effectively as they did back in 1973, but Black Caesar has really lost nothing of its raw power and intensity over the years.