Release Date(s)1970 (September 9, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C-
Calling Ossie Davis’ 1970 film Cotton Comes to Harlem a so-called Blaxploitation film isn’t actually correct. I know it meets a lot of the criteria, and God knows I love a good blaxpoitation film, but to be honest and truthful, it really is simply a crime genre film with comedic overtones – and it’s a damn good one at that.
Based on one of the Harlem Cycle/Grave Digger Jones & Coffin Ed Johnson Mystery novels by Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem follows a huge cast of characters all caught up in the search for Eighty-Seven Thousand Dollars stolen from a fast-talking con-man turned evangelist Reverend Deek O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart). O’Malley collected this money on the promise of bringing back groups of African-American donors to Africa on a ship dubbed The Black Beauty. During one such rally, a meat truck full of armed men pull up and take his haul (a haul, he planned to steal himself). O’Malley and his men quickly follow in a gold-plated armored car, and they themselves are pursued by Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Chambers) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) two tough-as-nails Harlem police detectives who work all the grey areas in-between rich and poor and black and white. They aren’t corrupt, but they will do pretty much anything to bring justice to the righteous (as defined by them).
All of that is just the first ten minutes (watch carefully, because everything you need to know about everything in this movie is shown in the first few minutes). A bevy of characters are called out and introduced including Redd Foxx as homeless junk collector, LaWanda Page as a righteous Harlemite, Cleavon Little as a junkie street painter/thief and Judy Pace as O’Malley’s girlfriend with an axe to grind and a body to die for Iris and from this point forward, Ossie Davis starts a roller coaster going that he expertly manipulates with laughs, thrills, scares, titillation, political commentary and some damn impressive camerawork to give us a film that, if you haven’t seen it, you really need to ask yourself, “why?” This movie pretty much has everything and it may not be the greatest Blaxpoitation film ever made – but that’s only because, as I said in my opening, it’s not a Blaxploitation film.
Kino Lorber has shown a lot of love for Cotton Comes to Harlem with this very nice widescreen (set at 1.85:1 aspect ratio) 1080p high-definition transfer. It’s not the best it can be – there are a few “cigarette burns” showing up throughout, but overall it’s a nice transfer, with bold colors, good old fashioned grain keeping you in the vibe and black that is truly “black enough for you.” The soundtrack is presented in a 2.0 DTS Master-Audio with clear tones. I didn’t hear any awkward noise or distortion and the score and songs sound great in this presentation. English subs are here for the hearing impaired.
Sadly there are not any extras outside of the original trailer, which is a bummer. This is a movie where I would have loved some history and some digging. There is a wealth of info, and enough high-caliber fans of the film, its actors and crew that you’d think even just a thirty-minute contextual feature would have been a no-brainer. But alas – not to be.
I love genre. I love genre films and have no problem throwing around labels. Blaxploitation is a high-point in American cinema regardless of whatever negatives anyone wants to wrap around it. The movies are fun, and many are just plain good. So when I say I don’t really feel like Cotton is Blaxploitation, it’s not saying I think it’s better than that. I just saying, it’s very much a crime film and stands proudly in a different genre with French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, Mikey and Nicky and Dirty Harry. Check it out and see if you don’t agree – the only thing you’ll lose is a spot on your “I need to see that movie but haven’t yet” list.
- Todd Doogan