Tackling the hot-button issue of racial profiling by police officers, and also dramatizing the social ill of cops closing ranks at the expense of morality, Cornbread, Earl and Me adds an interesting panel to the quilt of ’70s African-American cinema. Dramatic, heartfelt, and impassioned, the movie aspires to be deeply moving, but the filmmakers’ shortcomings limit the heights to which the film ascends. Ultimately, Cornbread, Earl and Me is more respectable than wonderful. Nonetheless, seeing as how it was made at a time when most Hollywood films about the black experience were presented through the demeaning stereotypes of blaxploitation, Cornbread, Earl and Me deserves credit for approaching its subject matter with compassion and respect.
The title refers to three friends living in the inner city. Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton (Jamaal Wilkes) is an award-winning high-school basketball player who’s about to leave for college and, presumably, a glorious career in the NBA. Two of Cornbread’s biggest fans are neighborhood youths Earl Carter (Tierre Turner) and Wilford Robinson (Larry Fishburne). One tragic day, Cornbread inadvertently runs into the path of two policemen, Atkins (Bernie Casey) and Golich (Vince Martorano), who are pursuing a black suspect. Mistaking Cornbread for the suspect, the cops shoot the basketball player to death. In the aftermath, Cornbread’s hardworking parents, Sam (Stack Pierce) and Leona (Madge Sinclair), hire attorney Benjamin Blackwell (Moses Gunn) to sue the city for wrongful death. The police department responds with intimidation and threats. At one point, thuggish Sgt. Danaher (Stefan Gierasch) actually hits young Wilford, who saw the event happen, and warns Wilford’s mom, Sarah (Rosalind Cash), that her welfare checks will be suspended if Wilford testifies against the police. Caught in the middle of the crisis is Atkins, a black cop who grew up in the same neighborhood where Cornbread was killed.
Although the plot, which was extrapolated from a novel by Ronald Fair, is quite schematic, Cornbread, Earl and Me works fairly well as a narrative. Atkins and Cornbread represent different pathways for escaping poverty, so the various compromises associated with racial assimilation are addressed. Similarly, Wilford’s family represents the pressures felt by those who need government support to survive, yet must occasionally bite the hand that feeds. Overall, the film effectively illustrates the mixture of deprivation, fear, hope, and sacrifice that permeates the existence of inner-city residents who try to live honorably in a world filled with dishonorable people. And if the ending is a bit tidy, offering something closer to wish-fulfillment than to reality, then it’s possible to look at Cornbread, Earl and Me as a hopeful urban fable. The picture also benefits from strong work by such veterans as Cash, Gunn, and Sinclair—as well as an endearing performance by relative newcomer Fishburne, who was in his early teens when he shot the picture.
Cornbread, Earl and Me: GROOVY