Friday, April 10, 2009


Director Larry Cohen's "Black Caesar" is an extraordinary film, not your typical black exploitation movie. In fact, it is far from it. "Black Caesar" is a dark and gritty character study, the story of the rise and fall of a gangster who started out with good but inherently flawed intentions, with his lust for money and power getting the best of him. This is a more akin to a classic black & white gangster film than it is a blaxploitation movie. With that being said, let's dive on into this movie...

"Black Caesar" centers around Tommy, masterfully played by Fred Williamson. His cool and commanding presence steals the screen in every scene. Tommy started out in the streets shining shoes for a living. One day he happens to shine the shoes of the wrong person, someone who is about to be the target of a mafia killing. The man sees his killer approaching, but Tommy does not want to let him go. He wants to finish shining his shoes, and the man is shot dead in front of Tommy's eyes. The man's assassin soon takes Tommy under his wing, grateful for his interference. Tommy soon winds up in a dark underworld of scandal and political corruption without his knowing. He goes to make a mob pay off to a racist, high ranking police chief, evilly portrayed by Art Lund. The police chief is shorted on his money, and shakes Tommy down. He finds a knife on Tommy, and beats him mercilessly with a billy club. So Tommy is sent away to prison for eight years and returns with an intense desire to get revenge and do away with this corruption.

Tommy emerges from prison sharp as ever, eager to work for the mafia. He gets word of a recent planned killing. He decides to carry the assassination out himself in a very brutal and nerve wracking fashion in a barber shop. Soon he is taken in by the mob, performing merciless killing after killing. Tommy begins to work on his plans to take revenge on the police chief that sent him away, and his plans are very involved indeed. What follows is a complex and sometimes hard to follow tale of double crossing and political corruption to no end, where everyone is on the taek. It seems that Tommy will stop at nothing to get his way and gain more power. He wants to take over the entire New York mafia, putting his own corrupt all black crime syndicate in it's place. This complex maze of back stabbing and betrayal is something that you will have to watch the movie to fully understand and appreciate.

Let's get on to the character of Tommy. He started out as a good man. He was just given an unfair shake at life. A lot of his anger stems from the brutal racism he has experienced in his life. This movie covers about twenty years of Tommy's life, from the mid 1950's to the early 1970's, a time when racism was still a major problem. Tommy wants to be successful, and wealthy...he wants to live a life he knows he can't. He wants the wealth of the affluent white man, but he doesn't go about fulfilling his dream in an honest way. He takes the quick and easy way out, joining the world of organized crime, thereby becoming rapidly wealthy. In one scene, he orders his white attorney to sell him his house along with everything in it, including the clothes, and kicks the attorney and his wife out, ordering them to never return. Tommy's lust for revenge and power costs him everything, including the love of his life, the death of his mother, and the loss of a dear friend. He has come to stand for everything that he was against. By the end of the movie, Tommy has nothing, double crossed and betrayed and back in his childhood slum neighborhood in one of the most harrowing, gut wrenching and flooring endings I have ever seen on film. The ending of "Black Caesar" gives me goosebumps every time I see it.

What gives "Black Caesar" it's power is not just the script. It is the highly original camera work of Larry Cohen and the incredible soundtrack written and performed by James Brown. Cohen's camera captures panic and paranoia perfectly. He is the master of the realistic crowd scene...I mean truly realistic. All kinds of background noises are left in, making you feel like you are there in the crowd. You see, all of the killings take place in broad daylight in the heart of a crowded city. The camera swoops in and out and everywhere, zooming in on everyone and everything, heightening the sense of paranoia and anxiety of the assassin and his target. This effect can be somewhat disorienting at times, yet highly effective. James Brown's soundtrack simply puts this movie over the top in my opinion. It is perfect, a very soulful and focused James Brown, saddening and powerful. The music perfectly mirrors the turmoil going on in Tommy's mind throughout the movie.

I cannot recommend this movie enough. If you go into this film wanting to see your standard blaxploitation movie you may be disappointed. Visually it bears some resemblance, but this is where it ends. "Black Caesar" is a deep and saddening movie about the tragic rise and fall of a well intentioned but flawed human being. You can't help but to sympathize with him, even after all the terrible things he has done. If you haven't seen this one, drop what you are doing and pick this one up now, but watch the trailer and listen to a little of the soundtrack below first, of course.

Here's the tralier. The music in this trailer is not the music from the movie. It's not even James Brown.

Here's one of the best songs form the film. James Brown's "Down and Out in New York City".

Down and Out In New York City - James Brown

And here's a clip from the movie with James Brown's soundtrack.

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