Today, I was wondering what I would do for my Friday blog. I actually had a piece on Luke Cage in the pipeline that I needed to finish, but my heart really wasn’t in it tonight. Thankfully, this week, I received two Blaxploitation movies that I had never seen before: Black Caesar and The Candy-Tangerine Man. I’d wanted to see both for a long time, but I had to show my respect to Fred Williamson first. So, while I thought about the gameplan for my Luke Cage article, I popped Black Caesar into the DVD player. Twenty minutes into it, I thought, “Why don’t I do a liveblog review of the movie?” I’d never done a liveblog before, but I figured I could kill two birds with one stone.
Therefore, I present to you, Black Caesar, the story of a Black shoe-shine boy who works himself up from errand boy for the Italian mafia, to the boss of the New York rackets, starring Fred Williamson, D’urville Martin, and Gloria Hendry,
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
00:32 - Caption “September 5,1953″
00:42 – Based on the outfits of the bystanders and the principals, I’m not fully convinced.
02:12 – The kid playing a young Tommy Gibbs, shoeshine boy, looks a bit too much like Chris Brown for me to root for him wholeheartedly.
03:15 - Director Larry Cohen is doing a nice job of keeping cars and other anachronistic details off-camera with smart shot selection, but it’s not obvious unless you’re looking for it.
04:51 - Nice creepy lighting in the stairwell.
05:44 – The cop starts roughing up and then frisks Tommy. Suddenly, there’s the sound of running water and the cop and the kid pause for a moment and look down. Was that meant to imply Tommy pissed himself?
05:55 - The cop on the take, named McKinney, is accusing young Tommy Gibbs of skimming some of his mob pay-off money. Love the righteous indignation from lil’ Chris Brown here. ”Look you fuckin’ ass, I didn’t take your money. You don’t get pissed at me!”
06:21 - They’re fighting and Tommy is down! The cop wails on him with his nightstick. Nice use of the trash can lid as a shield, Tommy, but, man, your ground game sucks. Who do you think you are? Kimbo Slice?
07:01 - Tommy’s laid up in a hospital with a broken leg chatting with Joe, his nerdy friend. Tommy’s going away to jail for a while after he heals up. Acting’s a little weak here, but it nicely sets up the friendship. He tells Joe to get laid while he’s away.
08:10 - Caption: “October 23, 1965″ Fred Williamson’s now playing the adult Tommy Gibbs. He limps into a barbershop where some mob goon is getting a shave from a Black barber.
08:32 – There’s never a good time to be a bigot, but you really don’t want to launch into a racist monologue while a Black man has a straight razor at your throat.
09:48 - Tommy’s holding the whole barbershop hostage while he toys with his prey. Williamson is his usual devilish and devious self, but there’s a nice, subtle air of desperation there too. This dude is hungry to prove himself.
11:41 - He’s cutting off the ear!
12:00 - New scene. There goes the ear into the pasta of the mob boss who called the hit. ”I thought you could use some more MEAT in your sauce.”
13:47 – Tommy lays down a nice rap on why he’d be a perfect contract hit man for the mob. ”I got a built in disguise. They never look at me. They never look at my face, my nose, my lame foot. All they know is that I’m Black.” It reminds me of the film Dirty Pretty Things (2002), with its theme of an ever-present, but still unseen, underclass of immigrant servants.
14:10 - Tommy’s always hustling.
14:33 - Montage of James Brown’s “The Boss” over a sweet montage of Tommy’s rise to power! Sing it! ”I’ve paid the cost to be the boss!” Just noticed “Chairmen Of The Board” on the marquee behind Tommy in the picture below as he surveys his domain. Nice touch. Real nice touch.
15:55 - Love Williamson’s rueful glance at the neon shoe sign.
16:08 - D’urville Martin as a phony, corrupt preacher, Reverend Rufus.
17:47 - Gibbs has got himself a shiny new mob lawyer and he’s laying out his plan to consolidate his power by stealing the McGuffin some mob ledgers.
18:15 - More James Brown incidental music is always welcome. In the early 1990s, Das EFX jacked this instrumental for their debut song, ”They Want EFX.”
18:58 - Ladies and gentlemen, the lovely Ms. Gloria Hendry.
20:57 – Tommy rubs out the mob accountant, two gangsters and takes the ledgers. ”You know what this is? Power. Political power!”
23:22 - The tension between Gibbs and McKinney, now a police captain, who crippled him as a kid, is really powerful. Great stuff by Williamson, lulling him into a false sense of security. “I want him nice and fat before I kill him.”
25:59 – Tommy buys the lawyer’s apartment, clothes, and everything in it, including his maid, out from under him. His wife seems haughty, highly medicated, and slightly attracted to Tommy, despite her better judgment.
27:47 - Just snatched the leopard shawl off the shoulders of the lawyer’s wife on their way out the door. Lady, he said EVERYTHING! Awesome, sometimes subtle, socio-political subtext throughout! There are a lot of dog whistles for Black folks.
30:01 – Sweet twist with the maid.
34:46 – Tommy can lay a trap like a spider. Most of the time, the last thing his victims see is his smile, but a surprising bit of mercy for the old mobster who took a chance on him. Not much, but some.
39:06 – There goes the competition and one delicious looking turkey. Tommy and his boys literally turned the pool into a bloodbath.
41:07 – ”Everybody’s a liberal nowadays, McKinney. Get with it.” *Sigh* How times have changed.
43:55 - ”No” means “No,” Tommy. Remember that.
45:10 - The great Julius Harris as Tommy’s estranged father. He was a really underestimated character actor. I didn’t realize how much range he had. For the first time, Tommy seems rattled.
49:41 - Gloria Hendry is RIPPED!
52:35 - D’urville Martin’s been playing a crooked preacher, and you get the feeling that this is the first time he’s had to pray and really mean it.
55:54 - Re: The lawyer’s wife being attracted to Tommy. I was right.
56:41 – Uh-oh! Tommy made Joe promise that he’d get laid, but I don’t think he meant like this.
102:01 – Well I’ll be. There really is a horse and buggy drive-by shooting in this movie.
102:29 – Even the baby’s smart enough not to trust McKinney.
104:43 – Great framing with that shot. Williamson could have used it to get himself cast as James Bond.
105:01 -Gloria Hendry’s way hotter with her natural hair. She’s got fantastic skin, too.
106:29 – I wish movies today were ballsy enough to embrace nudity.
108:03 – Evocative use of the hand-held camera.
111:58 – That is one shoddy hit. It’s like they’re hunting deer with a bow. I guess they’re counting on Tommy bounding off into the brush where they’ll recover the body on they’re own sweet time.
113:34 – Tommy just garrotted (yes, that is a word) one of the would-be assassins with his tie. Even with a bullet in his gut, Tommy Gibbs is still one bad dude.
115:45 – Love how Tommy incredulous is once he realizes that Rufus has actually turned into a real man of faith.
119:41 – Is she really going to let her husband walk into a trap?
123:40 – Finally the stand-off with McKinney. Anytime a villain tells the protagonist to kneel, it never ends well for them. Just ask Zod.
125:43 – Shoeshine box-fu.
128:16 – Very powerful scene with Tommy painting McKinney in blackface and pistol-whipping him. A lot of raw, genuine emotion from Williamson here.
129:56 – Whereas Curtis Mayfield’s score for Super Fly was compared to a Greek chorus, providing a counterpoint to the action, James Brown’s score for Black Caesar underlines the scene in very blunt terms.
131:44 – The mighty Tommy Gibbs brought low by common teenage street thugs. Meanwhile, the valued ledgers that everybody lied, fought, and died for are left scattered in the trash, their significance, or ultimately, their insignifance, exposed and ignored by the hoodlums.
CONCLUSION: This was a really good movie. It was solidly acted throughout, and the director, Larry Cohen, was willing to take some chances that really paid off. This is truly Fred Williamson at his best, because he was called on to bring sympathy to an often unsympathetic character and he knocked it out the park. Despite his easy smile, there’s a lot of sadness and hunger for power and respect that drives him. Also, Fred Williamson has charisma to burn. If you could turn it into an alternative energy source, you could light up Las Vegas for a year. Black Caesar comes highly recommended.