While SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG is overwhelmingly considered the first example of blaxploitation in cinema, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM paved the way one year earlier. This slick Hollywood crime picture influenced countless blaxploitation pictures that played in grindhouses throughout the ‘70s and laid the blueprint for the buddy cop comedy that exploded in the ‘80s, still informing tough-guy action cinema today. SWEETBACK director Melvin Van Peebles wanted his follow-up to WATERMELON MAN to focus on more radical subject matter, forcing the auteur to fund SWEETBACK himself and shoot it independently. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM, on the other hand, was a more measured production, produced by Hollywood prince Samuel Goldywn, Jr. and distributed by United Artists. Much like the film’s heroes, Detectives Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jaques) and Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) director Ossie Davis and his team worked from within the system to bring COTTON to the silver screen.
Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson made their debut in Chester Himes’ 1957 novel, A Rage In Harlem. Himes’ detective stories are cut from the same cloth as crime writers Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and Joe Lansdale: noir-ish tales populated with street smart heroes — and anti-heroes — who play by their own rules, offbeat criminals, and crackerjack dialogue. Himes had a very particular point of view; he was a black American ex-pat living in Paris when he penned A Rage In Harlem, the first book in his Harlem Detectives series. The author had attended Ohio State University on disability income he had received from falling down an elevator shaft on the job but at 19, he was expelled from the school over a “prank” and ended up serving time at the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery. While serving out his sentence, a massive fire killed 300 inmates at the prison, which inspired Himes to purchase a typewriter and begin writing short stories. His work would eventually appear in The Bronzeman, Atlanta Daily World, and even Esquire. Himes was paroled eight years into his twenty-five-year sentence, and after his release, Himes made his way to Hollywood where he spent a brief period as a screenwriter. He also produced two novels, If He Hollers Let Him Go and The Lonely Crusade, that focused on the Second Great Migration and black workers’ role in unions and collective bargaining.
In early 1967, his novel Cotton Comes To Harlem was one of seven optioned by Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. with the intent of creating a series of films centered around Himes’ Harlem detectives, Cotton being the first to go into production. The novel was adapted by Ossie Davis and Arnold Perl, moving the action from the ‘50s to the modern times and focusing on the detectives rather than the duplicitous Reverend Deke O’Malley. Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques would return one more time as Digger and Coffin in 1972’s COME BACK, CHARLESTON BLUE and in 1991, comedian George Wallace and Stack Pierce would take over the roles respectively in Bill Duke’s adaptation of Himes’ A RAGE IN HARLEM). Davis had been working as an actor in film and television since the ‘50s but never gained mainstream success. He attempted to follow in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier but struggled with roadblocks put in place due to his race. Davis would go on to find success post-COTTON directing GORDON’S WAR and BLACK GIRL. The era of blaxploitation cinema found plenty of black talent being employed in font of the camera, but behind the camera was Arthur Marks, Larry Cohen, and Jack Hill. His co-writer Perl had spent most of the ‘60s writing for the television shows such as The Naked City and N.Y.P.D. Notably, both men would find history with Spike Lee in the ‘80s and ‘90s; Lee regularly cast Davis — memorably as The Mayor in DO THE RIGHT THING — and Lee re-wrote Perl’s script for Malcolm X.
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM was shot in the summer of 1969, right around the time of the legendary Harlem Cultural Festival—aka “Black Woodstock”. As the soulful “Ain’t Now, But It’s Gonna Be” (with lyrics by Ossie Davis) plays over opening shots of a colorful, lively Harlem, the bustling neighborhood and its residents are introduced to the audience. For the urban fetishist, Harlem is photographed in all of its concrete and steel glory, showcasing the time and place with long-gone storefronts and neon Chinese restaurants, beauty parlors, record stores, and bars. The film treats Harlem as a microcosm of the world, with little to no mention of what’s going on outside of the neighborhood. The picture kicks into high gear early, with a big action set piece at a “Back To Africa” rally and fundraiser hosted by the slick Reverend Deke O’Malley. O’Malley is collecting donations from the people of Harlem for his cause but is robbed in broad daylight by a gang of masked men with machine guns leading to a car chase through the city punctuated by a funky score. With that, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM announces itself as a bold new style of filmmaking, taking a cue from BULLITT and adding a sense of humor. There is a movement and pacing to the camerawork that predicates the kinetic action and car chases of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE SEVEN-UPS, and RUNNING SCARED to BAD BOYS and beyond. COTTON COMES TO HARLEM is a transitional film, with one foot in the colorful, heightened style of the ‘60s and one in the grittier crime dramas that would be born of the new Hollywood that was on the horizon. As a director, Ossie Davis’ light touch blends well with Hime’s sense of humor. Davis adds absurdist touches to the proceedings — be it a junkie being launched comically high into the air after being hit by a car or a pie to the face during a protest sequence crashed by busybody white activists — bringing whimsy and slapstick to Himes’ more hard-boiled notions.
We immediately meet Grave Digger and Coffin Ed, the beating heart of the picture, with the perpetually smirking Grave Digger offering comic relief to the stoic, smoldering anger of Coffin Ed. Digger is Coffin’s conscience, calling him off when Coffin violently strong-arms O’Malley’s main squeeze Iris Black (Judy Pace) and derides Coffin for convicting O’Malley without a trial. The D.N.A. of Himes’ Harlem detectives can be found in countless buddy cop films that came in the wake of COTTON COMES TO HARLEM: James Caan and Alan Arkin in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in LETHAL WEAPON, and even more directly in Will Smith and Martin Lawrence in the BAD BOYS films (the rare film that actually features two black partners). The quippy banter and the knowing looks between the characters showcase an intimate relationship that can only evolve from being brothers, being married, or spending countless hours on the job together. At one point, they’re even taken off the case, which as we know, happens to all of the best cops in movies. Grave Digger and Coffin are notable within the “blaxploitation” subgenre, as they were the rare protagonists who worked from within the system to fight for black rights. The blaxploitation pictures that followed COTTON predominantly focused on private eyes hired when the police couldn’t be trusted, vigilante justice carried out by the everyman and woman, and criminal anti-heroes operating under their own code. However, their adherence to the rule of law that they swore to uphold makes them men without a country in the microcosm of Himes’ Harlem.
Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are coming to terms with the changing of the times around them — and feeling out of place. The detectives are still in relatively conservative suits, with only Grave Digger showing off a little individual panache with a bright, monochromatic shirt and tie combo paired with his double-breasted grey suit — far more conservative than John Shaft in black leather and fitted turtlenecks. The flashy O’Malley, clad in white and pink and a sparkly cape, resembles a pimp more than a preacher, flanked by his cohorts in loud mustard-colored threads and paisley scarves.
Despite his earlier, politically incendiary works like If He Hollers Let Him Go, Himes’ detective stories were not overtly political, rather utilizing socio-political concepts as a subtext to his pulpy, Dashiell Hammett inspired crime stories. Despite being in an intimidating position of power, the Harlem detectives are still confronting racism within the force — even if the film does present a softer image of the New York City police department during the civil rights era, with black and white cops standing side by side. They are routinely referred to as “Uncle Toms” by some residents of Harlem who have earned distrust of the police. Despite Himes’ original novel being published only one year later, in the context of the film, the Harlem riot of 1964 was incited when a fifteen-year-old black teenager was shot and killed by a New York police officer and still fresh in the collective consciousness of Harlem. On the other hand, white colleagues are portrayed as clueless or racist or a combination of both, notably in a sequence where they leave an officer in charge of guarding Iris in O’Malley’s swank apartment, and she uses her charms to leave him naked with a paper bag on his head in the hallway.
However, both detectives have deep-seated anger when it comes to dealing with black people taking advantage of other black people, such as the fastidiously dressed swindler Deke O’Malley. “When you steal money from white folks,” that’s your business,” Coffin tells O’Malley. “But when you steal from blacks, that’s my business.” O’Malley attempts to trick the poor people of Harlem, promising them that for just a small donation, they can one day be just like him — a common ruse perpetuated since the first con. He’s a silver-tongued devil in an angel’s clothing; a master manipulator. Their white superior officers are blinded by the unique charm of O’Malley, who has positioned himself as an upstanding member of the black community, but from the word jump, Coffin and Grave Digger are suspicious of O’Malley. They are known — and feared — even by their fellow officers for their unorthodox, violent ways, but Digger and Coffin see themselves as the protectors of the community of Harlem. Early on in the film after being chewed out by the captain, Ed complains to Digger that he ought to quit the force, Digger explains “if you quit, I quit. Ed responds, “Then who’s going to protect the black folks from the white folks and who’s going to protect the black folks from themselves?”
Throughout the film, we meet a colorful cast of characters, including the great Helen Martin (who would go on to appear in A RAGE IN HARLEM in 1991) as a resourceful resident who gets the drop on a junkie pickpocket, and Cleavon Little as Lo Boy, an informant that explains to Digger and Coffin that he could tell that the masked bandits were white men because “they run white,” to which Digger exasperatedly responds “honkies in the woodpile.” As the detectives begin to crack the case, and it’s revealed that the O’Malley is in cahoots with Calhoun — a white ex-con — to swindle the people of Harlem out of $87,000 that is hidden, in all things, the titular bale of cotton, the duo utilize their wits as well as brute force to start turning everyone involved in the caper — O’Malley, Iris, O’Malley’s partner Calhoun, black radicals and the poor people of Harlem — against one another. The final showdown between the detectives, Calhoun, and O’Malley takes place during a burlesque performance at the world-famous Apollo Theater. Unlike the new Hollywood that was on the horizon, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM does deliver a happy ending, with Coffin and Grave Digger earning the respect of (most) of their peers, the detectives strong-arming the mob to refund the money to people of Harlem who in turn, turn their backs on O’Malley and Bud the Junkman (Redd Foxx, in his feature film debut) makes good on using that $87,000 to get back to Africa — after being scammed out of his last $20—giving him and the audience the last laugh.
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM opened in theaters on May 27, 1970, and became the 22nd highest-grossing film of that year, as well as one of the most commercially successful Hollywood films featuring a predominantly black cast. The vibrant candy-colored poster art for COTTON COMES TO HARLEM would go into influence countless blaxploitation posters throughout the decade, and while COTTON is not remembered as the quintessential blaxploitation film (that title would arguably go to SUPER FLY) it has without a doubt inspired a filmmaking movement and created a lasting influence that can be felt every time Danny Glover exclaims “I’m too old for this shit” or Officers Bunk and McNulty go out for a taste. While in the fifty years since its release, COTTON COMES TO HARLEM has been overshadowed by some of its flashier progeny, the picture remains as influential, and perhaps more importantly, endlessly watchable as it did when it captivated audiences in 1970.
Tags: Calvin Lockhart, Chester Himes, Cleavon Little, Cotton Comes To Harlem, Galt MacDermot, Gerald Hirschfeld, Godfrey Cambridge, Harlem, Helen Martin, Judy Pace, Ossie Davis, Raymond St. Jacques, Redd Foxx, Robert Q. Lovett, The 1970s, Theodore Wilson, United Artists