Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

Rated R

Starring: Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace and Redd Foxx

Rated: R   Action/Comedy

Based on the novel of the same title by the inimitable Chester Himes, this film is colorful, well-presented and action-packed for its era!  Set in the early 1970s, the film’s setting is the bustling, urban community of Harlem.  The viewer knows they’re in for a soul-filled, Black conscious ride from the very beginning, when the opening track features Melba Moore powerfully championing, “… Ain’t now but it’s gonna be … Black enough to be … Black enough to see … Black enough for me …”

Sourced from one of Himes’ novels in his hardboiled Harlem Cycle, the film, Cotton Comes to Harlem was co-adapted and directed by Ossie Davis.  The cycle, or series of novels, centers around Black detectives Ed “Coffin” Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) and “Gravedigger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge), hard-nosed, law enforcement officers who demand order in the chaos that accompanies the job to protect and serve.  In this tale, the detectives are trying to locate $87,000 that has gone missing from the Black Harlemites who donated monies to Reverend Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart). 

O’Malley is selling shares for the purchase of Black Beauty, a ship that is to take its donors back to Africa, where their life will be golden and free from oppression.  However, the detectives believe that O’Malley is conning his own Black people.  When O’Malley is robbed of the money at a rally in Harlem, the detectives, determined to get the stolen funds in the correct hands, race throughout Harlem to solve the case!

Cotton Comes to Harlem presented a diversity of themes, including discrimination and intra-racial justice, surrounding The Black Community.  It also exhibited colorful characters, including a Black gangster, Caspar Brown (named in honor of the African Danish numbers racketeer and philanthropist and Harlemite, Casper Holstein a.k.a. “The Bolito King” – profiled in ISSUE #21); Black militants and a Black exotic dancer who uses a bale of cotton as a prop of rebellion.  The film, featuring a predominately Black cast, was a box-office hit and became one of the top 25 films of 1970!  It portrayed an everyday life that many African-Americans could relate to and, prior to, had not been portrayed on screen in theaters. 

Cotton Comes to Harlem marked the debut of Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little onto the big screen. Each of these would go on to enjoy successful careers.  The soundtrack was created by Grammy Award-winning composer, Galt MacDermot (Hair) and featured Moore as well as the theme song, performed by George Tipton.

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