Only in the 70s: Black Caesar (1973)

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ROUNDING off Remakes Month at Film Torments, we take a prolonged look at one of the blaxploitation era’s biggest successes: 1973’s Black Caesar.

Born from the criminal blast of Prohibition, 1931’s Little Caesar is a sloppily shot, awkwardly acted gangster film from a bygone era. An artefact of pre-Code Hollywood, it set the precedent for gangster flicks to follow (e.g. Howard Hawks’ Scarface), while also being a cheap production riddled with corny lines, hokey moralising and swaggering sleaze. This much is obvious from the opening 10 minutes, its stagey grit lending a nicotine sneer to the trite Bible passage that opens the film.

Edward G. Robinson’s Rico is a diminutive menace, his dark-browed glare a common and sometimes amusing sight. Made near the start of the sound era, the sound blips and bad audio balancing adding a surreal, murky charm to a film that simply doesn’t hold up to the modern sensibility, despite some gorgeous cinematography. It’s laughably static and stilted, relying on its crux of moral outrage to offset a slew of wooden performers. Beyond audio mishaps, several shots see the camera go out of focus and the sets look hastily put together from second-hand IKEA parts.

Age has eroded Little Caesar’s charm, which is the central reason why Black Caesar, its 1973 blaxploitation remake, is absolutely nothing like it. The film’s setting is different (60s New York, not Prohibition Chicago), the characters are vastly different (mostly African-American, not Italian-American) and the soundtrack is entire worlds away. There’s nothing in Black Caesar’s genetic makeup to suggest its lineage beyond its simple rise-and-fall narrative, and even that is offset by turning its anti-hero into a (supposedly) tragic figure.

But Black Caesar is more informed by the context of its own time than the particulars of its estranged forebear. Riding the crest of a blaxploitation wave that brought the world Shaft, Coffy and Superfly – all of which cast black lead performers in politically-charged, cinematic capitulations of Black Power – Black Caesar is a more subdued picture that focuses on the subversion of the American Dream. It doesn’t slot into the genre as comfortably as, say, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, but it’s certainly not alien to it.

Or Dolemite, but nothing beats Dolemite.

Or Dolemite, but nothing beats Dolemite.

Much of this is down to James Brown’s funkalicious soundtrack, packed with walking bass and spacey vibraphones and the singer’s inimitable yelping. The soundtrack is so damn funky that it’s not immediately obvious how it clatters headlong into the film’s sombre tone, denying Black Caesar the hard edge it desires.  The mellower, vibraphone-led instrumentals seem more like anomalies than the big band romps that establish Tommy (Fred Williamson) as the “Godfather of Harlem”; the louder tracks, conversely, are incongruous with the vibe of corrupted youth and shattered dreams.

Unlike Robinson’s Rico, Williamson’s Tommy is a man deeply burdened by his impoverished upbringing and his status as a minority. Savagely beaten and crippled in adolescence by McKinney (Art Lund), a racist white cop, Tommy grows up as a gangster in Harlem, performing hits for the local Sicilian Mob. Eventually, he gains control of the territory by using a ledger book full of past dealings (used for leverage), exploiting his newfound riches by… buying some hats and raping his girlfriend, Helen (Gloria Hendry).

So, no, it’s impossible to entirely sympathise with Tommy’s predicaments, but Williamson brings real grit, verve and sideburns to the role, imbuing Tommy with violent bitterness. His stare is long and mean, his suits are crisp and flared; he’s a real bad mother, you dig. But in all seriousness, Williamson does much to redeem a film that pivots on tonal inconsistency, slipshod editing and simplistic characters.

This scene is accompanied by liberal mandolin, because SICILIAN!

This scene is accompanied by liberal mandolin, because SICILIAN!

The editing in particular, beyond some snappy montages of Tommy’s ascent to power, is lumpen, missing its natural cues by some distance. A scene where Tommy confronts his best friend Joe (Philip Roye) for cheating with Helen, the film almost seems to jump out of sequence with how strange and off-kilter the editing proceeds, with spatial awareness thrown to the wind. This isn’t to mention the numerous instances where the camera goes out of focus. (A trait shared with Little Caesar, but this doesn’t have the excuse of being 80+ years old.)

Much of the film’s charisma comes from its deviations from the blaxploitation context. Rather than revelling in glorious bloodshed and sticking it to The Man, Black Caesar is more intent on depicting the ugliness of violence, and how it warps its characters. Tommy is raised and moulded by violence; he dispenses violence in kind. Rather than espousing a militant reclaiming of black autonomy, director Larry Cohen is more concerned with addressing how Tommy appropriates the white man’s culture in pale imitation, denying his roots.

Cohen, in his eagerness to place Tommy as a tragic villain created by circumstances of birth, forgets to create any other developed characters. Helen is reduced to a wailing victim, helped in no part by Hendry’s laughably unconvincing performance. The villainous McKinney is as cardboard as any other crooked white cop in a blaxploitation movie, and Joe is never given enough screentime to establish him as a an acquaintance of Tommy’s, never mind his best friend.

Which is even less than this guy managed in 1931, but hey!

There’s a lot of heart and soul to Black Caesar – and certainly more societal ambition than its peers – but it’s an earnest failure. Its flaws lie too heavy on an otherwise solid vehicle, weighing down the punch of its message. James Brown’s soundtrack is ravishingly funky, but it would have been better served in a softer-edged film… like Hell Up in Harlem, the inexplicable sequel to Black Caesar made in the wake of its box office success.

Tommy’s rise and fall is given more depth and pathos than Rico’s sudden rise and suddener fall, but he’s always viewed from a clinical distance, as if Cohen is afraid to delve into the heart of darkness. That’s what the film truly needs: a darker foundation to its gritty surface. Given the disparate camp of its peers, it’s a credit that he at least tried to make an impact in a realist vein, but the results are mixed at best. We can’t divorce it from its context, and that’s where it rises the highest and falls the hardest.

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