Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Robbins Recipe: "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" meets "Shaft"
Cotton Comes to Harlem has been released in that Soul Cinema series, along with all the old Pam Grier and Slaughter movies, and there is good and bad news about that.
  • The good news is that we can now see it in a nice crisp, colorful print. Unfortunately, they did not manage to find and/or were unable to produce a theatrical widescreen version, and all we have is a solid 4:3.
  • The bad news is that a lot of people who would enjoy this film will not get to see it because they will think it is one of those cheapozoid blaxploitation films.


Judy Pace, a beautiful woman, is naked from pretty much every perspective in a scene in which she uses nudity to distract a white cop that she intends to escape from.
In reality, it's a pretty interesting caper film involving several parties dashing around Harlem, competing to find a bale of cotton stuffed with $87,000. The most comparable modern film would probably be "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels", in that the plot is fairly similar, and it strikes a similar balance between drama, action and humor. Of course, it was made in 1970, so pacing is a bit slow for our modern tastes, and the car chases and action scenes, which were really sweet in their own time, are not that impressive by modern standards. Furthermore, you may find some of the portrayals offensive if you listen with today's more sensitive ears. Even thpough the film was written and directed by a respected and intelligent man of African heritage, I doubt if such a man today would relish images of black detectives crashing into a watermelon truck while chasing down a bale of cotton. A certain amount of self-deprecatory humor would still be present in today's films, but the topics and symbols would be different. (Unless outright mockery of the stereotype itself, ala Spike Lee's Bamboozled).

But my overall point is that this is not a blaxpoitation film, but simply an enjoyable film made by and about black people.

The story was written by the popular and raunchy novelist Chester Himes, who wrote several stories around the same two detectives, but his books are much sexier and their tone is much darker than this movie, which focuses in on the search for the bale of cotton, not on the sex and racism. (Himes focused on black protagonists doomed by a combination of white racism and self hatred.)

The screenplay was written by actor-turned-director Ossie Davis, who also directed. Ossie directed several films after this one, but never again with such success, and he returned to performing after 1976. In fact, Ossie still performs, although now well into his 80's, and was nominated only a couple of years ago to be chairman of the board of the Apollo Theater. A respected orator, he spoke at the funerals of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. You certainly know his voice, since he did the famous commercial that said "a mind is a terrible thing to waste"

I guess, as the East Coast representative of our bi-coastal team (I was born in and lived many years in New York), I should point out that it is a real treat to see the action actually shot on the streets of Harlem. I lived not far from there, and in those days it was common to see white guys hanging out for various reasons. Other white guys had more exotic reasons, but I always enjoyed heading out there with my roommate for the music and the food (There is a Fun House connection here. One of my college roommates was not only from Harlem, but later had the luck to father our sometime humor columnist, Stone Cold). So it was great nostalgia for me to see the streets as they looked when I was a senior in college. Some of the action even centers around the legendary Apollo theater. (I've never been inside. The outside was unprepossessing, to say the least)

DVD info from Amazon.

  • I like the movie, and this print looks pretty good, but it's a 4:3, with no widescreen available! I guess that means the negative is lost, which would be a real shame

  • no important features

For my taste, the plot has too many characters and digressions. It's one of those deals where the D.A. turns out to be just some guy hired to say he was the D.A., and the guys who robbed the money were actually hired by the guy they robbed, and there are all sorts of sub-plots involving militants, an innocent junk dealer, con men, girlfriends who may or may not be involved, and I don't know what all, and I occasionally got lost in the digressions. But that was pretty much OK. It was an atmospheric film, and the confusion was used as part of the atmosphere, ala "Lock, Stock .."

I really enjoyed the humorous Godfrey Cambridge and the very humorless Raymond St Jacques as the two honest but unorthodox detectives, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed, who "broke a few heads, but never any promises".

Can be confusing at times, but very entertaining movie, plenty of fun, and a great ending.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.3.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. Much better than a genre flick, with action and humor that made the film popular amomng diverse audiences.

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