Let’s get one thing straight about writer-director Larry Cohen(who we always seem to come back to every few months around here)’s 1973 mini-opus Black Caesar : this is most assuredly not a blaxploitation film in any traditional sense.
Oh, sure, it was marketed to the African American audience. And yes, a formerly-trod-upon black guy getting his revenge on “The Man” is a central theme here. And yeah, it’s got a kick-ass soul music soundtrack (in this case supplied by the one and only James Brown himself). And okay, it stars none other than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and features D’Urville Martin in a supporting role as a crooked preacher.
So fair enough, it’s got all the trappings of your classic blaxploitation flick. But right there, bubbling away just underneath the surface, hiding in plain sight, there’s an unstoppable rhythm that grinds away more ferociously than the vocal stylings of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An undeniable trajectory that guides the plot along like a force of nature. We know it’ll all end either in tears or in a bittersweet “victory” that stings more than it soars, yet we can’t turn away despite the fact that the fate of the film’s central protagonist, one Tommy Gibbs (Williamson, in the role that made him a household name), is written in the stars. Yes, friends, this is classic Shakespearean tragedy as its finest — albeit in truncated form and set in Harlem.
When we join the story, our guy Tommy is a hard-working shoeshine kid in the 1950s who helps out the local hoods by setting a guy up to get whacked and running a payoff over to a local crooked cop. When the payoff envelope he delivers turns up a little light, the aforementioned morally compromised police officer, one Captain McKinney (the great Art Lund) takes it out on Tommy and busts his leg with his nightstick. And that right there is his biggest mistake, because Tommy Gibbs never forgets, and he never lets a grudge go.
As he lays in bed with leg in a cast, he begins to hatch his master plan, his rise to the top — he learned all he needed to know about the world when McKinney’s billy club whacked him, and he knows without a doubt that the name of the game is power. First he’s gonna get McKinney and every other white asshole just like him to bow down before him, and then he’s gonna bring ’em all down at the precise moment he’s got them eating out of his hand.
Next thing we know it’s 20 years later and Tommy’s making his mark as a hit man for the mob who’ll take on the jobs nobody else wants. the Italian “family” bosses don’t trust him, of course, but when he’s given a block of his own in Harlem that none of them want, he makes it work, and soon he’s expanding his territory — and taking over theirs. Tommy Gibbs soon becomes known as the “Black Godfather,” and as his influence grows, the same guys who first gave him a chance begin to view him as a threat. It’s only a matter of time before Tommy gets too big for his britches and is brought down hard.
Along the way, though, he becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Harlem crime world — but not without paying a price. Oh, sure, he gets McKinney, and every other bent lawman and politician, right where he wants them, and soon the guys who used to give him his marching orders are all taking the same from him. But the first person to see Tommy for the monster he’s become is none other than his own mother. When Tommy offers her everything she ever wanted and then some, she turns him down flat. When his estranged father re-enters the picture later, the results are no different. And his single-minded determination to “make it” manages to alienate his wife (there’s a particularly gritty scene that marks one of the few times I’ve actually seen a film portray spousal rape as the horrendous violation ) and drive her into the waiting arms of his best friend.
Needless to say, by the time our Mr. Gibbs finally has everything he wants — or more precisely everything he thought he wanted — he’s alone and finds he’s really got nothing. There’s been one thing driving him on all these years, though, one thing that he can still take care of before the curtain drops on his classically-structured tragedy — he can finally get even with McKinney, personally. Tommy’s a very sharp guy and senses that he’s on the way out, but before he goes, he’s going to take the symbol of all his former oppression and victimization down with him, goddamnit!
Okay, so this isn’t a particularly original set-up in and of itself (“be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and all that) — but the the oldest stories are still the best. As I stated at the outset, Black Caesar is genuinely Shakespearean in its structure (and Shakespeare got it from the Greeks — remember Oedipus, the very first tragedy?), but Cohen does a terrific job of serving us up a story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and for its time, frankly even a little bit revolutionary. the characters here, even down to the smallest supporting parts, are interesting and involving, even if they’re only there to serve as convenient plot devices. The dialogue is uniformly smart and realistic throughout, the actual Harlem filming locations are well-portrayed, Williamson is flat-out superb in the title role (equal parts compelling, repulsive, sympathetic, and alienating — we can always relate to his portrayal of Tommy even when we can no longer condone any of his actions), and at no point do you feel like there’s no way this could happen. This is a thinking person’s exploitation flick, and folks with a background in classical literature are going to feel more intrigued than insulted or pandered to by it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the same old story very well, after all, and that’s exactly what Black Caesar does. Sure, at the end of the day you could make the argument that it’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version (right about 90 minutes) of The Bard transposed into an urban ghetto environment, but that’s actually a pretty cool thing, especially when done with professionalism and passion — both of which are on display here in ample quantities throughout. Frankly, while Larry Cohen can usually be counted on to crank out a competent piece of work, this is as close as I’ve ever seen him come to genuinely inspired moviemaking.
Black Caesar is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line (of course). It’s (again, of course) essentially a bare-bones release that offers nothing by way of extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great, especially considering its age, and the 2.0 stereo sound does the admittedly killer soundtrack pretty solid justice. It’s also playing for free all month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite systems. So do yourself a favor and check it out — I’ve got a feeling that no less an authority than William Shakespeare himself would be more flattered than insulted by it.