|Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs.|
On release from prison, Gibbs assassinates a Mafia target for "free" to gain an introduction to Cardoza, a local mob leader. Gibbs convinces Cardoza to let run him run a small unprofitable neighborhood in Harlem--which Gibbs quickly transforms into a money-making empire. From there, the nouveau gangster expands his business to the West Coast and sets his sites on replacing Cardoza. Concurrently, the Mafia and the city's crooked district attorney begin to realize that Gibbs is a threat that must be eliminated.
There's nothing new about the plot to Black Caesar. However, Cohen freshens it by creating a three-dimensional anti-hero and infusing interesting touches throughout the film. There is no doubt that Gibbs is a ruthless killer, but he greatly values friends and family. He takes his marriage vows seriously, staying faithful to his wife (at least, until after she cheats on him). I found that to be a refreshing change from many movie gangsters who think nothing of keeping a mistress while posing as a caring husband and father. Furthermore, Gibbs' love of his wife and best friend causes him to spare their lives when he learns that the rumors of their affair are true. Gibbs realizes his decision will cause him to lose face, but he weighs the alternatives and allows his genuine affection for the two to drive his actions.
|The James Brown soundtrack.|
When Black Caesar chalked up solid box office numbers in 1973, American International Pictures pushed Cohen to make a sequel. The challenge was that Cohen had begun work on his horror thriller It's Alive and Williamson was making That Man Bolt. Still, the ever-innovative Cohen shot footage on weekends and used a stand-in for Williamson where possible. The result was Hell Up in Harlem (also 1973), a follow-up that starts with the final five minutes of Black Caesar. It lacks the spark of the original, but Williamson is still good as Gibbs. Cohen rejected James Brown's sequel soundtrack and hired Edwin Starr, best known for his hit song "War." Starr's score, like Hell Up in Harlem as a whole, is perfunctory at best.
|Williamson at age 74.|