Thursday, April 5, 2012

As James Brown Sings: It's Hard to be the Boss in "Black Caesar"

Versatile directors always intrigue me. Michael Curtiz excelled at contemporary drama (Casablanca), costume adventures (The Adventures of Robin Hood), and musicals (White Christmas). Robert Wise gave us The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story, and The Haunting. This prelude brings us to Larry Cohen, the creative force behind It's Alive, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Phone Booth (writer only)...and Black Caesar. A low-budget auteur, Cohen proved adept at injecting a fresh point of view into traditional genres. Black Caesar, his Blaxploitation riff on the 1930s gangster film, is a perfect example--and a surprisingly well-made film.

Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs.
Loosely based on the Edward G. Robinson classic Little Caesar (1931), Black Caesar chronicles the rise of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) from teenage hoodlum to Mafia-backed kingpin. Gibbs' story begins in the mid-1960s with a run-in with a crooked cop. That experience lands Gibbs in prison, but provides him with knowledge that he'll exploit years later--when he steals account ledgers incriminating powerful men in New York City.

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.

Of course, a well-written character means nothing without the right actor to inhabit the role. For me, the biggest surprise in Black Caesar is the excellent performance by Fred Williamson. A former football player for the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, Williamson had only appeared in four movies and an episode of the TV series M*A*S*H. Yet, he captures the swagger, intensity, and anger that propel his character. He makes sure we know Gibbs isn't interested in just making money--he wants to be at the top of the world looking down at the people that looked down on him as a youth. In Williamson's best scene, Gibbs informs his mother that he has bought her the high-rise apartment where she works as a maid. He's totally unprepared for her less-than-enthusiastic reaction and his face changes from joy to disappointment to repressed anger in a matter of seconds.

The James Brown soundtrack.
Cohen gives Black Caesar a smooth urban feel by visually capturing life on the streets. Theater marquees, pawn shops, and street people seem to inhabit every frame. (As a result, the film goes flat when it shifts briefly to the West Coast scenes.) James Brown's funk-driven soundtrack--especially his song "The Boss"--contributes significantly to the hip vibe.

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.
Almost four decades after their collaborations, Cohen and Williamson remain active in the entertainment industry. In 2009, Cohen wrote the Canadian thriller Messages Deleted and Williamson appeared in Zombie Apocalypse: Redemption. And just this evening, I saw Fred Williamson in a TV spot for the Wounded Warriors Project. Apparently, it's true...old (movie) gangsters never die.


  1. I have a memory of several scenes in 'Black Caesar' but not the entire picture, for some reason. Time to revisit it as a double-feature with its sequel, which I don't remember seeing at all.

    A very enjoyable piece. Love the opening mentions of those fabulous directors!

    These films are not mentioned often enough! Perhaps not quality by most standards, but still memorable for those who grew up watching ALL that television and 'the movies' served despite genre - a wonderful way to build a base, a love of film that spans generations.


  2. Never seen this in full, but I have seen some clips over the years. Not my favorite genre, but I still enjoyed reading your informative post.

  3. I love both Fred Williamson and Larry Cohen, so the two of them working together is a most excellent proposition. This isn't my favorite from from either of them, but I concur that it's a solid movie, bolstered by Fred's stellar performance and an energetic pace typical in Larry's work. I also agree that the sequel, HELL UP IN HARLEM, isn't as good, but I was still surprised that it wasn't awful, because BLACK CAESAR is the kind of film that really doesn't need a follow-up. But that's just another testament to the skills of the star and director. Great post, Rick! Now I'm craving concurrent Fred and Larry marathons.

  4. As I was reading this, I thought of the Beach Party film series that American International Pictures produced. Quite a difference there! Fred Williamson and Larry Cohen sound like a very good pairing. Fun post, Rick!

  5. Terrific post Rick, Solid trash cinema, lots of bad-ass fun (LOL). Never did get to see HELL UP IN HARLEM.


  6. I enjoyed your great post Rick, and I am going to be on the lookout for Black Caesar -- it's one of the few films from this era that I've never seen! I can't imagine how I missed this one.