KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (11)
August 11, 2017
One of 25 installments in a series of enthusiastic posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite neo-noir movies from the Sixties (1964–1973).
COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | d. OSSIE DAVIS | 1970
To fully appreciate the multi-faceted brilliance of Cotton Comes to Harlem, don’t confuse it with the book. While they share a basic plot and characters — con man turned ersatz “Back to Africa” preacher Deke O’Malley bilks $87,000 from the people; loses it to masked armed robbers; a caper that mordant detectives Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed determine to solve — the film eschews the jazz-soaked social history asides of Chester Himes’s great novel. It also, crucially, changes the time a bit. Written in 1963 and set indeterminately around the time, Cotton wasn’t published in the U.S. until early 1965; half-a-year after police shooting-related riots rocked Harlem and just weeks before the assassination of Malcolm X. Delivering the eulogy at Malcolm’s funeral was his friend, actor, writer and activist Ossie Davis. In April 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was murdered, Davis addressed a memorial gathering in Central Park and then flew to Memphis to aid the striking sanitation workers there. So it was that when producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr. sought to bring Cotton to the silver screen, he made a bold decision: with Davis in his directorial debut and the date set to the Nixonian present, they’d make a film unbound by either white oppression or well-intentioned black piety.
In nearly all aspects, Cotton’s production team was remarkable. Davis co-wrote the screenplay with Arnold Perl, a formerly blacklisted television writer whose 1961 stage adaptation of Sholem Aleichem stories was itself adapted into Fiddler on the Roof. Scoring the picture was Hair composer Galt MacDermot, for whom Davis would write the lyrics for “Black Enough,” the film’s perfectly nuanced overture sung by Melba Moore. Shooting entirely on location was cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld, as impressive in bright color as he’d been in the stark black-and-white of 1964’s Fail-Safe. As for Cotton’s largely black cast, they are beyond brief praise, especially given a script which darts between drama, action and comedy. Indeed, what on casual viewing might seem a slapdash narrative is actually the framework for an Afrocentric complement to 1968’s Coogan’s Bluff and the sharpest, most nuanced and affectionate satire this side of 1969’s Putney Swope, some of whose extras appear in both movies. Signifying: J.A. Rogers’ miscegenation history Sex and Race in the apartment of Deke and his partner Iris (the astonishing Judy Pace). Unprecedented: Iris, to a white cop she’s trying to seduce, then escape from: “You’re not a fag are you?”
KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Series Introduction | Kio Stark on THE KILLERS | Alix Lambert on BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | Judith Zissman on ALPHAVILLE | Mark Kingwell on HARPER | Lynn Peril on BLOW-UP | Devin McKinney on SECONDS | Drew Daniel on BRANDED TO KILL | Luc Sante on POINT BLANK | Gordon Dahlquist on LE SAMOURAÏ | Alice Boone on LE CERCLE ROUGE | Brian Berger on COTTON COMES TO HARLEM | Adrienne Crewe on PERFORMANCE | David Levine on THE FRENCH CONNECTION | Dan Fox on GET CARTER | Melissa Gira Grant on KLUTE | Brandi Brown on SHAFT | Kaleb Horton on FAT CITY | Peter Doyle on THE GETAWAY | Sarah Weinman on HICKEY & BOGGS | Annie Nocenti on BADLANDS | Josh Glenn on CHARLEY VARRICK | Gary Groth on THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE | Lisa Jane Persky on THE LONG GOODBYE | Mimi Lipson on MEAN STREETS | Sherri Wasserman on SOYLENT GREEN.
MORE MOVIES at HILOBROW: KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: 25 neo-noirs of the Sixties (1964–1973) | James Parker’s BOURNE VARIATIONS series | Alix Lambert’s SÉRIE NOIRE series | Jacob Mikanowski’s SCREEN TIME series | Josh Glenn’s SHOCKING BLOCKING series | Joanne McNeil’s ALL MY STARS series | MORE: including dozens of HILO HERO items on movie directors and actors.
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