Hail Caesar, Godfather of HarlemÖ
The Cat with the .45 Caliber Claws!


Larry Cohen. That name should be instantly recognizable to drive-in viewers. Cohen, who has worked in plenty of different genres, mostly horror and sci-fi, has delivered a number of ďquirkyĒ films over the years. Thereís the sci-fi romp Q, the mutant baby films ITíS ALIVE, and the low-budget auteur of THE STUFF. He not only gives viewers what they want, but does it on an entertaining level that canít always be found in genre films. So, how does he fare in the blaxploitation field?

Our film opens in Harlem, 1953. We are introduced to a young Tommy Gibbs. Acting as a gofer, Tommy delivers money to a crooked cop by the name of McKinney, gleefully played by Art Lund, a regular face in the exploitation genre appearing in such films as WALKING TALL and BILLY JACK. McKinney realizes that heís short on cash. Did Tommy steal the money, or did his boss do it on purpose? We never know. What we do know, however, is that McKinney gives Tommy a beating. So bad is it that it leaves Tommy with a gimp leg.

We then skip to Tommy being in prison. He tells his friend, Joe, that heís going to learn criminal rules while Joe is to go to college and become familiar with its system.

Gibbs emerges from prison twelve years later. Heís now a handsome man, athletic, but still sporting that limp. Itís here that we start to follow Tommyís rise to the top of the criminal heap.

One canít help but realize that Cohen was giving a nod to the 1930ís film LITTLE CAESAR as we follow Tommy around.

First, Tommy takes out the Italian mob boss who has been running Harlem. He wrestles control away from the Mafia and sets up his own business. Though he isnít much better in his fare, the local blacks begin to hoist him as some kind of folk hero. Even when heís extorting them, it appears as if theyíre happier to do it from one of their own instead of the Italians. Times never seem to change, do they?
Gibbs plans are straightly laid out. He hires a white lawyer to front his operation while constantly humiliating him for no reason. He also buys an apartment, completely furnished, but later gives it up when his mother, a maid for long years, turns him down.

As is usual, the more Gibbs earns the less it matters to him. He slowly loses the rage that helped him make it to the top. And this, of course, sets him up for the rest of the human wolves that are stalking him.

Cohen injects this film with deep characterization. Itís one of the things which lift this movie above the usual blaxploitation fare.

While Tommy gets everything he wants, he begins to alienate those around him. Iíve already mentioned that his mother turns down luxuries offered her, and thereís a bit respite with his father that drips with revenge best served cold.

His childhood friends also begin to drift away. Joe, who had helped launder Tommyís money, is eventually caught cheating with Tommyís wife. Though Joe will willfully return to Tommyís side in a time of need, itís not after heís received a beating from Tommy and been forced into poverty.

Then thereís McKinney, our main villain. Cohen does well with the old ďthereís no black or whiteĒ issue. McKinney is one evil character. Lund plays him full-tilt, making him stand-out as one of the greatest villains in the exploitation genre.

But Lund does not give the only great performance. Fred ďThe HammerĒ Williamson is perfect as Tommy Gibbs. Itís one of the best blaxploitation roles. He pushes him above other genre actors, and fellow professional football players, like Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson. He makes Tommy believable in his rise to the top. Williamson would go on to feature in FROM DUSK TIL DAWN and ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, a film helmed by Ė you guessed it Ė Larry Cohen.

And then we have to discuss the ending of the film:

SPOILER ALERT

After a final confrontation with McKinney, Tommy is left badly wounded. Stumbling through the rundown apartments, making his way through the junk and assorted debris that is lying around, heís set upon by a group of young kids Ė roughly the same age that he was at the beginning of the film Ė which robs and kills him.

This brought an outcry from the black crowds. Though they loved the film, there was no way they were going to accept Tommyís death. On the DVDís commentary track (which is a great listen), Cohen recounts the tale where he was attacked by a black woman. She shouted at him that blacks wouldnít do that to each other.

Where did this woman think Tommy was getting his money from? Iím not sure if itís laughable or pitiful to tell the truth.

So the studios cut the ending. They were hungry for their money and wanted to leave the film open for a sequel. This, of course, turned up the same year as the lackluster HELL COMES TO HARLEM.

Returning to the commentary track, Cohen was surprised to see that the ending still existed.

Personally, I really like the ending. Iíve always been a sucker for downbeat endings, and BLACK CAESAR delivers. Itís up on par with IL GRANDE SILENZIO as one of the greatest finales on film.

END SPOILER

Iím left to highly recommend BLACK CAESAR. Would it be a best start to the blaxploitation genre for the newbie? You could do a lot worse. For a few other recommendations, try SLAUGHTER with Jim Brown. Not too mention Richard Roundtree in SHAFT. However, I canít recommend the two sequels to that film: SHAFTíS BIG SCORE and SHAFT IN AFRICA. Of course, Iíll leave those to later reviews.

As for Tommy Gibbs, Iíll leave that up to the King of Soul James Brown to say:

Youíre paying the cost to be the boss.

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