Most reputable sources peg 1971, the year of Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, as the beginning of blaxploitation—yet two 1970 releases, Cotton Comes to Harlem and They Call Me MISTER Tibbs!, contain many signifiers closely associated with the genre. For instance, both movies include funky soundtracks, primarily black casts, and urban milieus. Tibbs!, of cousrse, is a sequel In the Heat of the Night (1967), whereas Cotton Comes to Harlem, cowritten and directed by African-American actor/playwright/activist Ossie Davis, is a whimsical celebration of modern black life, depicting a wide range of characters occupying a spectrum of social stations. Exploitation? Far from it. That’s why Cotton Comes to Harlem is interesting as a cultural milestone. As entertainment, however, Cotton Comes to Harlem isn’t quite as noteworthy.
Based on a novel by Chester Himes, the movie is absurdly over-plotted and overpopulated, with a story that’s alternately difficult to believe and difficult to follow. The shortest possible summary is this: After a robbery/shootout disturbs a public rally, black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) investigate a criminal conspiracy related to flamboyant preacher Duke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart). A wild chase/investigation involving angry citizens, drugs, drunks, revolutionaries, riots, stolen money, wronged women, and a giant bale of cotton unfolds, with scenes taking place throughout Harlem—culminating in a hellzapoppin finale on the stage of the Apollo Theater.
Cotton Comes to Harlem is filled with provocative ideas and vivid performances, so it’s never boring. In fact, some parts might be too vivacious, with actors including Lockhart going way over the top at regular intervals. Conversely, Cambridge and St. Jacques are likeably cool and cynical throughout the piece, while iconic comedian Red Foxx—in one of his few movie roles—is surprisingly restrained. So, even though Cotton Comes to Harlem is bit of a mess, there’s something edifying about seeing what conscientious artists did with the same narrative DNA that, just a short while later, produced the dubious universe of blaxploitation.
Cambridge and St. Jacques reprised their detective roles two years later in Come Back, Charleston Blue, which was adapted from another of Hines’ novels. This time around, the director was Mark Warren. The sequel is more disciplined than its predecssor, in both good and bad ways. While the stoyline of Come Back, Charleston Blue is a bit easier to track than that of Cotton Comes to Harlem, the second movie doesn’t have quite as much exuberance. That said, Come Back, Charleston Blue offers a faint echo of the charms that made Cotton Come to Harlem interesting, namely the offbeat fusion of comedy and drama and the loving depictions of black culture. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, as well as other principal characters, are introduced during a charity ball that climaxes with a nasty murder. Eventually, the detectives learn that someone is playing vigilante by killing local mobsters, using straight razors to slit the throats of criminals plaguing Harlem neighborhoods. Clues suggest the culprit might by a fellow nicknamed Charleston Blue, who waged a similar war on crime years earlier but has long been thought dead.
As Coffin Ed and Gravedigger search for the real identity of the avenger, they get into hassles with their superiror officer, Captain Bryce (Percey Rodrigues), and they dig around the activities of a photographer/activist named Joe (Peter De Anda). Along the way, the detectives get demoted to beat cops, employ various silly disguises, and survive lots of slapstick antics. Like the previous movie, Come Back, Charleston Blue is unweildly in terms of tone, bouncing between cartoonish comedy and extreme violence, but some of the elements work well, such as a running joke about a precocious street kid. Oddly, the leading actors are underused, since the filmmakers get disracted by nonsense. (What’s with the homage to The Public Enemy, the 1931 gangster classic with James Cagney?) This results in episodic pacing that makes Come Back, Charleston Blue feel overlong and sluggish.
Perhaps that’s why Coffin Ed and Gravedigger didn’t appear onscreen again until A Rage in Harlem (1991), featuring Sam Pierce and George Wallace in the roles.
Cotton Comes to Harlem: FUNKY
Come Back, Charleston Blue: FUNKY