Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is the blaxploitation classic “Black Caesar,” starring Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.
“Black Caesar” was written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. It was his second directorial feature after “Bone,” and his first taste of real financial success in the film industry.
The cinematography on “Black Caesar” was provided by frequent Larry Cohen contributor Fenton Hamilton, who also worked on “It’s Alive,” “It Lives Again,” and the sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”
The effects and makeup on “Black Caesar” were provided by Rick Baker, who has now won significant accolades as a special effects guru for films like “An American Werewolf in London,” “Men In Black,” “It’s Alive,” and “Ed Wood.”
The producers on “Black Caesar” outside of Larry Cohen included the actor James Dixon (“God Told Me To,” “Q,” “The Stuff”), Peter Sabiston (“It’s Alive,” “Bone”), and Janelle Webb (“A Return To Salem’s Lot”).
The music for “Black Caesar” was provided by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, and is arguably one of the best blaxploitation soundtracks of all time.
The editor on “Black Caesar” was George Folsey, Jr., who also cut such movies as “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Coming To America,” and Larry Cohen’s first film, “Bone.”
The cast for “Black Caesar” is headlined by blaxploitation legend and former NFL star Fred Williamson (“From Dusk Til Dawn,” “MASH”), with an accessory cast filled out by Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), Art Lund (“It’s Alive III”), Val Avery (“Papillon,” “The Magnificent Seven”), and D’urville Martin (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Dolemite”).
The story of “Black Caesar” follows the meteoric rise and fall of a black hitman who works himself into organized crime by working contracts for the mob and blackmailing members of the NYPD.
Famed singer Sammy Davis, Jr. reportedly turned down the lead role in “Black Caesar,” which opened the door for Fred Williamson to become one of the most iconic figures of the genre.
The story of “Black Caesar” is based on the acclaimed film “Little Caesar” from 1931 (not to be confused with the pizza chain), which was directed by Mervyn Leroy and starred Edward G. Robinson.
2009’s well-regarded blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite” takes a few shots at “Black Caesar,” particularly in the content of the story and the soundtrack. For instance, the similarities between the tracks “Mama’s Dead” from “Black Caesar” and “Jimmy’s Dead” from “Black Dynamite” are, to say the least, a bit notable.
“Black Caesar” ultimately spawned a successful sequel, “Hell Up In Harlem,” which was also written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. Williamson reprised his role despite his character’s death in “Black Caesar,” and the fact that he was under contract with another studio during the filming of the sequel. Cohen and co. ultimately filmed on the weekends while making “It’s Alive,” because it was the only time that Williamson was available.
I couldn’t dig up any financial information or a solid number on the production budget for “Black Caesar,” but it was definitely constructed on the cheap side and made a significant profit on it. The film currently holds a 6.1 score on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 55% (critics) and 65% (audience), making for a mixed reception. Regardless, it is considered a classic of the blaxploitation genre.
“Black Caesar” has a few pacing flaws, in that it feels like it skips forward rather quickly in parts rather than building up the rise of Gibbs through the criminal world. It still gets the point across, but it feels like there is a lot more detail and focus on the back end of the movie than the rise to power, which is kind of the opposite of most crime stories.
I noticed that a lot of criticisms of the film at the time were focused on it being too violent or crass, which seem more like complaints leveled against the genre as a whole rather than this film. Within the crime and blaxploitation genres, “Black Caesar” is top of the line if you ask me, and is incredibly well crafted by most standards.
Fred Williamson’s at times charming and emotional performance arguably makes the movie what it is. He does a pretty fantastic of building a character who is violent, sinister, and criminal while also keeping the audience pulling for him throughout the story, which is no easy task for a murderous, megalomaniacal rapist like Tommy Gibbs.
Audiences apparently hated the ending of “Black Caesar,” which concludes with Gibbs dying penniless in a gutter after being mobbed by a black gang. Personally, I thought it was a perfect conclusion. It places Gibbs where he started the story, and allows the community which he scorned to take its revenge on him. Throughout the film, Gibbs has a crusading mentality that he is fighting for his community by forcing his way up the criminal ladder. However, this conclusion, which shows his old neighborhood in shambles, proves that this simply wasn’t at all the case, and that Gibbs was just a selfish and grandiose jackass who abandoned his home the minute that he found success. Of course, this ending was partially erased in order for “Hell Up in Harlem” to exist, and Cohen even tried to change it for the wide release of “Black Caesar” before it went out.
Last but not least, the climax of “Black Caesar” is at once memorable, shocking, fulfilling, and perfectly suited for the film. Gibbs takes his ultimate revenge on the racist police officer who assaulted him as a child (while working as a shoe shiner) by covering his face in shoe polish, forcing him to sing, and slowly beating him to death.
There are a fair number of similarities between “Black Caesar” and Brian De Palma’s take on “Scarface” from 1983. Both films depict an outsider going through a rise and fall in the criminal world, cursed by their own ambitions and greed. Personally, I like “Black Caesar” a little better than “Scarface,” if only on the strength of the leads. I’ve never been a fan of Pacino in “Scarface,” but Williamson in “Black Caesar” is top notch, and handles the complexities of his character well.
Overall, “Black Caesar” is more than deserving on the praise that it has acclaimed over the years, and is a justified classic of the blaxploitation genre (and crime movies in general). I highly recommend it for fans of crime movies, blaxploitation flicks, or Larry Cohen in general. It provides an interesting window to see where Cohen’s experience as a filmmaker came from, and how it influenced his later films in the thriller and horror genres.