In my opinion BLACK CAESAR is one of my favorite blaxploitation movies. It’s got a good story and direction (by Larry Cohen), a badass soundtrack (by James Brown) and a super badass lead (Fred Williamson). Fred plays a cruel motherfucker, sort of a Scarface type anti-hero, but makes him mostly sympathetic.
You already know the movie is good at the beginning because it has such a good and unusual opening. Fred’s character Tommy Gibbs is a kid (played by some young guy, don’t worry it’s not Fred wearing a beanie or nothin) working as a shoe shine boy.
There’s a nervous white man in a suit, looking over his shoulder, but Tommy convinces him to get a quick shine. Suddenly a scary mafia dude comes out with a gun and the whitey tries to run. But Tommy holds onto his shoe. After the dude is dead, Tommy meets up with the mafia dude in an alley. He gets his payment and also gets to hold the murder weapon and check it out. This kid may have some problems, is the idea.
Later, when the kid has just gotten out of the joint (where he grew into Fred Williamson) he decides to enact a master plan to take over a neighborhood from the Italians. It’s a bold plan and even though Larry Cohen is probaly some sort of white dude, he puts alot of race and class wish fulfillment shit in there to make it fun. For example, Tommy is so rich he buys a penthouse apartment from a white couple, forcing them to move out immediately and leave all their belongings. Then he tosses the wife’s fur coats out the window. The next morning we figure out why he bought the place – his mom is the maid. He tries to get her to just retire and live in the apartment herself, but it’s more complicated than that. She can’t see herself living in the rich white people building. She’s just sees herself as the maid.
And Tommy is not exactly a nice guy. He completely loses our sympathy after he rapes his best friend’s wife. (not that it would matter if it’s his best friend or not. this is not good.) Later he beats them both up and pulls the wife’s wig off. After that she never wears the wig again, she has short hair and starts to look like Angela Davis or somebody, a good visual symbol for the change in her character. This couple represents the other approach to fighting the system, these guys try to follow the straight path. If this was South Central in the ’90s Fred would be Ice Cube and his friend would be Cuba Gooding Jr. But with better taste in clothes.
Speaking of which, Fred looks fucking cool in this movie. I didn’t get a chance to listen to all of Larry Cohen’s commentary track, but I heard him tell a story about sending Fred off to buy his wardrobe for the movie. He came back with all these suits and Larry asks him how much he owes him. “$800.” “You mean $800 for each suit?” “No, 800 total.” He explains that he got them all at discount stores, some of these suits cost $35.
“But how could that be a $35 suit? It looks so good!”
“Cohen – EVERYTHING looks good on me.”
And it’s true.
At the climax, Fred beats his enemy’s head in with the same shoe shine box he used as a kid. What better way to illustrate where this guy is coming from? He’s a cold motherfucker but he also held onto his shoeshine box so he could use it to beat a white man’s head in… and then they respect the audience enough to not have to point arrows at it like HEY LOOK, THIS IMPROVISED WEAPON IS ACTUALLY AN IMPORTANT PIECE OF SYMBOLISM.
This is a real compelling story, a rise and fall kind of tragedy, based on the old gangster movies. Specifically LITTLE CAESAR of course. He made up the story originally for Sammy Davis, Jr., ’cause he’s a little guy. Fred spends the last act of the movie holding his hand to a bullet in his chest. And at the end he gets a hell of an et tu Brute. (there’s a sequel though, I’ll have to see that and find out what’s what.)
Anyway, highly recommended. If you’re just getting your feet wet on blaxploitation, this is definitely one of the most important ones to see.