Perhaps one of blaxploitation’s more classy installments of the genre, Black Caesar (1973) trades on the charm of its handsome leading man, Fred Williamson. Having made his first starring venture with Hammer, a film that showcased the actor’s strong screen presence but underwhelmed as a story, Williamson would soon become one of blaxploitation’s most recognizable figures.
Often, blaxploitation plays upon sensationalist sex and violence, examining the tribulations of black urban youth with a pointedly cynic and ironic humour. Black Caesar plays with these conventions but it also interpolates the elements of the genre into a fabric of an emotional, sometimes poignant, human drama. While the edges of the story are certainly rough with its pedigree of guerrilla-styled filmmaking, there’s plenty of sophistication to spare in writer and director Larry Cohen’s story of a wannabe gangster’s hard knock life.
Tommy (Williamson) is a young teenager, navigating the tough streets of Harlem. Earning some small change shining shoes, Tommy also has a hand in some shady dealings with a corrupt and racist police officer. When a deal goes bad, Tommy is severely beaten by the officer, an incident that will affect him for the rest of his adult life. Inspired to make a change that will see him rise to the top of a self-made crime syndicate, the aspiring gangster rounds up a group of rogue swindlers who help him take the streets of Harlem.
As an adult, Tommy’s wily tactics and shrewd wit help him to overthrow the reigning Italian mafia which has Harlem in its grip. A bloody takedown ensues and Tommy becomes one of New York’s most feared gangsters. But his life is not without problems; his hard-working and selfless mother disowns him and his love-interest, Helen (Gloria Hendry), leaves him when his criminal pursuits overwhelm her. Tommy can’t trust anyone anymore and his desire for power and revenge upon those who have wronged him soon get the best of him.
Much of Black Caesar’s success as a story can be attributed to some of its very well-drawn characters; Cohen’s characters manage to avoid the pitfalls of caricature, something that can’t be said for a lot of blaxploitation films. In Williamson, Cohen has a magnetic lead who captivates simply with a smile and the arc of a brow. When it comes time to flex thespian muscle, Williamson does quite well (though admittedly, he’s no Poitier). This, perhaps, is down to the fact that Cohen’s script gives his actors much to do apart from storming establishments with guns blazing.
There are, in fact, some rather poignantly sketched scenes. Tommy’s interactions with his mother are strained with the frustrations of having lived a single-parent life. As well, his relationship with his preacher brother is awkward at best; Tommy has no time for religion when revenge is his only salvation. In the film’s most emotionally-charged scene, Tommy confronts the racist cop who beat him as a child; the rage and pain expelled as a final humiliation is forced upon Tommy is demonstrated with affecting sincerity.
Most of all, Black Caesar rises above much of the other films of its ilk with a superb sense of style. While the camerawork is none too fancy, the film boasts some imaginative editing; scenes are arranged in a manner both elegant and deft, artfully landscaping the story with a jazz-like cadence. Such creative allowances offer viewers something beyond the sex and violence, which are often the elemental prototypes of exploitation films. In addition to the visual aestheticism, Black Caesar also features a score by James Brown, a set of bluesy-funk soul that has in the years since become a DJ’s sampling dream. Brown’s soundtrack gives the film an added touch of class and the numbers are placed rather well throughout the story.
Olive Films offers a cleaned up picture that presents the film with healthy-looking colours and crisp images. Of course, a film of this age is sure to show signs of wear but the transfer is pleasantly defined, never oversaturated with grain or bleeding colours. The audio comes through nicely for the most part; there are just a few moments when there are dips in the volume during some dialogue, but it’s never distracting and doesn’t happen too often. Unfortunately, there are no extras featured on the disc.
Black Caesar pulls its final bust on blaxploitation conventions in its eerie and surreal conclusion; Tommy wanders back to his childhood home and experiences a horrific surge of fears finally surfacing after years of suppression. Either delusional or finally meeting his decrepit end, Tommy’s fears seemingly manifest in the form of a vicious gang of children who serve as a haunting echo of a sentiment that runs through the boroughs of poverty: you can run but never hide from your troubled past.