Don’t mess with Shaft


If there’s one thing I like as much as noir, it’s blaxploitation films. Cotton Comes to Harlem was one I hadn’t seen before I found it on Youtube last week.
The novel had funny moments, but the movie seemed to really play up the comedic aspects. Part of that, for me, was recognizing so many of the actors. Redd Foxx, who played the junk collector, later played a junk collector on TV in Sanford and Son. I thought the lady with the hole in her skirt was Aunt Esther from the same show, but I’m pretty sure I was mistaken. Coffin and Grave Digger’s boss later played Leslie Neisen’s boss on Police Squad!. And Godfrey Cambridge, who played Grave Digger, I recognized from Watermelon Man, where he played a white racist who woke up one day to find he had turned into a black man. Surprisingly, Watermelon Man and Cotton Comes to Harlem were both released on 27 May 1970 according to IMDB.

I’m curious as to why Ossie Davis went for funny rather than gritty or hardboiled. He could have had commercial, cultural or aesthetic reasons. I looked (not trying too hard) for articles about Davis and the film from 1970-71. I found an article from the LA Times that said up until that year “blacks … had little or no movie image,” meaning they were very rarely on screen. I don’t know how accurate that is. It could be that black cinema (other than Sidney Poitier) was not on the reporter’s radar.

Writing a generally negative review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby noticed that the film audience rooted for Deke O’Malley rather than Coffin and Grave Digger. Judging from the way they laughed when the detectives told Deke he could have been another Garvey or Malcolm, he writes that “the audience … was simply disappointed that crime did not pay.” As police detectives, Coffin Ed and Grave Digger represent The Man more than the people of Harlem, whereas Deke is a hustler trying to get ahead. Himes himself said that Deke was meant to be the central character, not the detectives. The audience probably did not sympathize with the victims of Deke’s scam because they were really only victims of their own foolishness.

Does blaxploitation means exploiting the black audience, or exploiting black sterotypes? Hollywood found that movies geared towards black audiences could be very profitable, earning half a billion dollars in today’s money back in 1972.

While audiences were voting in favor of these movies with their wallets, others were criticizing them for the image of black America they displayed. In Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend satirized black stereotypes in film. Public Enemy criticized the racial caricatures displayed in movies in the song Burn Hollywood Burn. The song concludes with a decision to watch Black Caesar, a movie about a criminal gang leader, instead.

Of course, I can’t write about blaxploitation without a shout out to what is possibly the best movie ever made, which has six word story t-shirts of its own. It’s not every day you get to see Nixon with nunchucks.

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