‘Cotton Comes to Harlem’ Has Quality Activism and Acting

Ossie Davis's directorial debut raises questions and statements about race and culture in America that resonate strong today.

Released in 1970, Cotton Comes To Harlem was actor Ossie Davis’s directorial debut. Based on Chester Himes’ novel of the same name, the story follows detectives “Gravedigger” Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and “Coffin Ed” Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) as they pursue the wrong Reverend Deke O’ Malley (Calvin Lockhart), whose “Back To Africa” movement is a thin scam. When close to $90,000 of the money O’Malley has swindled goes missing, chaos ensues as Gravedigger and Johnson encounter the mafia, black militants, and a multitude of others as this film turns from melodrama to comedy and back and forth again.

It’s an early example of a so-called Blaxploitation film, of course, albeit with a higher budget than some pictures of its ilk. It has an incredible cast that includes Redd Foxx, Cleavon Little, and Judy Pace, and features several sly humorous turns. If tragedy is about community, then you might say that Cotton Comes To Harlem is a tragedy. This is the story, after all, about how one man uses the best promise that black America had for equality at that moment in time, the return to Africa, as a tool to swindle. O’Malley has no apparent desire to return to Africa himself, and would need to pull off a heck of a second act to make the con fully work. His ability to prey on the desperation of the community and their belief in him certainly furthers the tragedy theory. They are blinded by that desperation, but he too is desperate.

Without his ability to swindle and scam he might just as easily be swindled and scammed. In fact, despite his con acumen, he’s taken under and his plot is complicated and cast aside by circumstances. The cotton itself lends an air of mystery. This is Harlem, after all, a place where black Americans have come to get away from picking cotton, away from a structure that held them as slaves; and yet, the past chases them even to this sanctuary (of sorts). Their desire to deal or not deal with the titular material tells us how much healing had yet to be done in 1970.

Foxx turns in a role that is more nuanced than what we might expect and the script, from Davis and Arnold Perl, has more dimensions than one might catch on first viewing. It’s not a perfect film, though Davis’ style is unique and would influence a younger generation of directors in a variety of ways. The film itself speaks to his role as an activist and his understanding of how to pull a good performance from an actor. Though he would go on to direct again (especially Gordon’s War), he never quite blossomed into the filmmaker this picture showed he had the promise of becoming and his acting turns were always memorable if often too few and far between—though that would change in the final years of his life.

As with many of the films from the era and from the loosely-defined Blaxploitation genre this has elements of formula—there’s music, an intense chase sequence or two, some broad comedy, a little bit of sex, and a whole lot of statement being made about the particular moment in time from which the film originated.

That this film continues to attract an audience all these years later is not surprising. The story it tells is as relevant today as it was back in 1970 and today perhaps has the ability to reach a broader audience in a way, one that can see the levels of nuance and hypocrisy found in the plot.

This Blu-ray edition does not offer extras, which may be one of the gravest disappointments of the package as surely there is footage somewhere that could enhance the viewing experience even if the director and members of his cast can no longer do that work. Cotton Comes To Harlem isn’t as good as some others of its ilk—Davis is no Gordon Parks or Gordon Parks, Jr.—but it is one of the must-see movies of its kind, and having it around today will no doubt help us understand the past just a little bit better, even if we can’t do anything to improve upon it.

RATING 7 / 10