April 4, 2017

Remakes: Black Caesar

While researching last month's theme, we learned that Larry Cohen's Black Caesar was a remake of a pre-code gangster film staring Edward G. Robinson called Little Caesar.

Why remake a fairly obscure gangster film from the 30s?: Cohen had been commissioned by Sammy Davis Jr. to write a film that would star Davis, and Cohen decided to base his script on a gangster film he'd obsessed over when he was young. Unfortunately, by the time the script was finished, Davis was unable to pay for it, leaving Cohen with a movie idea burning a hole in his pocket. Luckily it wasn't too long before he was approached by Samuel Z. Arkoff to direct something featuring a black cast. Cohen showed him Black Caesar, and they signed a deal before their first meeting was through.

The plot unfolds something like this: A young Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) crosses paths with a punch-happy, racist, and on-the-take cop who sends Tommy to the hospital, and juvie in short order. When Tommy gets out, he positions himself to be at the local (also racist) mob's disposal, dutifully doing their bidding and eventually earning a section of Harlem of his very own. But his lust for power becomes unquenchable, and he begins to alienate everyone he cares about as his grabs for power become more bloody. He's left with two choices: examine why he started down this path in the first place, or die trying to avoid the reality of who he's become.

The overt similarities: Both Black Caesar and Little Caesar are about the rise of a small-time criminal, and their subsequent undoings.

Different subtexts: The undoing of each of these characters is rooted in their limited understanding of themselves, but where Rico (Edward G. Robinson) in Little Caesar seems to be incapable of letting his "friend" (who is more probably his unrequited love interest) leave the life of crime Rico has built for the two of them; Williamson's Tommy can't seem to understand why his revenge fueled climb to the top has failed to make him (and everyone around him) happy.

Misogyny in place of homosexuality: There aren't homosexual undertones prevalent in Black Caesar (enough that we noticed the first time through that is), but there is a fair amount of misogyny. Tommy treats his love interest poorly from the moment she's introduced, to the point that we couldn't understand why she was drawn to him in the first place, never mind marry him. And at his character's moment of no moral return; Tommy violently rapes his wife. It seems that Cohen was aware of the homosexual themes but opted to replace them with misogynistic themes. But even with different subtexts, both of these films are an exploration of the problems that arise when men don't properly address their feelings.

And the soundtrack: Speaking of misogynists, this was James Brown's first soundtrack effort, and he unintentionally made life very difficult for the filmmakers. Every track he turned in was upwards of 30 seconds longer than it needed to be, making it impossible to use the songs for the scenes they were written for. As a result, the way the tracks are used in the film are sometimes jarring and down right odd. But on their own, they're fantastic James Brown songs. (And even though Brown made life harder for the production, when the time came for the sequel to be scored Cohen reached out to Brown again. This time Brown turned in something of a masterpiece. A masterpiece that American International Pictures passed on, and Brown ended up releasing himself as The Payback. That's right, one of James Brown very best albums, was a rejected soundtrack. Go figure.)

Our feelings on this film: This was one of our favorite blacksploitation films we watched while researching last month's theme (and if it hadn't been for that completely unnecessary and horribly violent rape scene, we would have found a way to screen it). It's one of the few blacksploitation films that's considered a tragedy, but it's also one where racism is illustrated in many lights, where poverty and crime aren't shown through a two-dimensional lens, and the only one we watched where the female lead was portrayed as both strong and vulnerable. There's an impressive layering of nuance in this film from start to finish (which is unusual for a mob movie), and despite the unreasonably graphic rape scene, we highly recommend it.

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