Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Himes on Harlem: We Kick Cotton's Ass

By Odienator (Click here for all posts)

Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference. –Chester Himes

Chester B. Himes wrote novels that spanned genres, but he’s best known for his crime novels, four of which have been made into movies. Himes was an Ohio native who, after being expelled from Ohio State, turned to a life of crime that would net him a 20-25 year stint in the penitentiary. While incarcerated, Himes turned to writing as a way to earn respect and avoid violence. His novels ranged from autobiographical stories about racism to a candid take on homosexuality. Himes’ greatest fame came with the eight novels he wrote about Harlem, featuring recurring police detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. I’ve read six of Himes’ novels, and four of his works have been transformed from novel to screen with varying degrees of success. Today and tomorrow at Black History Mumf, we’ll take a look at two of these features, Cotton Comes to Harlem and A Rage in Harlem.

In 1970, the late Ossie Davis became one of the first Blacks to direct a major studio feature. His compatriots all chose material that came from literary sources. The pioneer, Gordon Parks, chose his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, for Warners in 1969. Melvin van Peebles chose Summer of ‘42 scribe Herman Raucher’s book, Watermelon Man, as the film he made before he changed the independent movie game. Davis, an actor and playwright (Purlie Victorious), chose Chester Himes’ novel, Cotton Comes to Harlem, as his directorial debut. Parks went on to direct Shaft, and van Peebles tackled Sweet Sweetback. Davis, the most cinematically experienced of them all, never directed another hit after Cotton.

Davis proved surprisingly adept at directing, balancing Himes’ penchant for hilarity and slapstick with his reliance on shady characters and graphic violence. Cotton is less brutal than both the novel it’s based on and the cinematic version of A Rage in Harlem, but it still has plenty of violence. Causing a fair bit of it is a duo played by Calvin Lockhart and Judy Pace. Lockhart, no stranger to playing men who are as trifling as they are charismatic, plays a preacher whose Back to Africa movement has stirred up a lot of interest for Harlem residents. The Right Reverend Deke O’Malley has promised them a boat ride back to the mother country for a thousand bucks apiece. This being 1970, that’s a helluva lot of money to go to a place none of these Negroes had ever been to before. Marcus Garvey and James Monroe may have been serious about sending folks Back to Africa, but Reverend Deke is full of more shit than a Christmas turkey—a jive Christmas turkey.

Seeing through O’Malley’s ruse is Coffin Ed Jones (Raymond St. Jacques), a police detective working the Harlem beat with his partner Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge). Ed complains to Digger every chance he gets, stating that O’Malley’s flim-flamming of his own people is worse than mistreatment by Whites. Digger responds with amusement, but doesn’t disagree. Ed wants to kick the Reverend where the Good Lord split him, and as Cotton Comes to Harlem opens, it looks like he may get his chance. O’Malley has shown up in Harlem to peddle his Africa scam, and the neighborhood outpouring is huge. O’Malley, true to the form of so many Black preachers, shows up dressed like a pimp, using de Lawd to get him chosen by the na├»ve and the overheated.

After taking in his haul of cash, O’Malley’s rally is interrupted by several machine-gun wielding men. They shoot up the place and are given chase by Digger and Ed. In the fracas, $87,000 manages to disappear from the scene of the crime, and O’Malley’s right hand man is murdered. Davis handles the action well, presenting a car chase with several entertaining angles, plenty of gunplay, an explosion and a punch line that plays hilariously on a certain stereotypical fruit.

It’s the film’s first juggle of comedy and violence, and it’s well balanced.

Digger and Ed find the getaway car and the stolen armored truck hoisted at the rally, but there’s no money in it. Even more puzzling is a large piece of unprocessed cotton found at the scene. Digger, Ed, and their chief, played by Eugene Roche from Webster, are confused. What would cotton be doing in Harlem?

A pickpocket named Early Riser is run over by the robbery suspects’ car. He goes flying comically into the air, a visual reminder of an earlier scene where Digger absurdly tosses a Black militant guy about 50 feet in the air. The pickpocket’s fate is a lot more tragic—he’s killed—but his death may provide a clue to the robbery suspects. Seems Early Riser’s junkie sidekick, Lo Boy, may have seen more than enough to help Coffin Ed and Digger’s investigation. Lo Boy is played, rather convincingly, by Cleavon Little 4 years before he brought color to the Wild West.

Digger and Ed question Lo Boy, but he’s too high to be coherent. At least until Ed starts slapping him around. St. Jacques must slap six different people in this picture; Lockhart looks like a pimp and St. Jacques uses his hand like one. Ed slaps information out of Lo Boy that indicates the thieves in question were White. “They had masks on,” yells Ed. “How the hell did you know they was White?” SLAP SLAP! Lo Boy cries out “because they ran White, dammit!” The duo think it’s the Mob, but the Don tells them otherwise.

Meanwhile, Deke O’Malley, whose name conjures up images of Bing “Dial O for O’Malley” Crosby’s priest in Going My Way, works his way to the home of his right hand man’s woman, Sister Mabel. She’s very cute, and very stupid. O’Malley turns on the charm and gets with her (“Dial O for Orgasm?”). She’s willing to be his spy in exchange for what Biggie Smalls once called “that good luv, gurl, you didn’t know?” (Aside: Calvin Lockhart’s character in Let’s Do It Again is where Christopher Wallace got his nom de rap.) This doesn’t sit well with O’Malley’s woman, Iris (Judy Pace). Iris is as hot as she is hot-headed, and when Ed and Digger assign a goofy, White cop to guard her until O’Malley shows up, she not only manages to get him (and us) so hot and bothered with her nudity that he’s willing to wear a bag over his head in order to have sex with her, she also manages to outwit him before he can get any nookie. He runs after her wearing nothing but that bag, and winds up locked outside butt naked as she runs out of her apartment. The neighbors, all Black, have a good laugh at the guy’s equipment.

While the cop treats the ladies in the audience to an equal amount of nakedness, Iris runs to her friend’s rehearsal at the Apollo. The friend is a stripper (Ossie likes these hot Black women!) who lets Iris borrow something less revealing to wear. “You must have left in a hurry,” says the stripper, who until this moment has been frustrated trying to find a new hook for her big routine. Iris grabs an outfit and heads to the house where her man has been shacking up with that other woman.
As aforementioned, Iris is one angry sistah. When she becomes aware that her man has been screwing the competition, she erupts in violence. “I just needed somewhere to stay,” yells Deke, trying to prevent Iris from whipping the other woman’s ass. “Yeah, between this bitch’s legs!” she screams. As played by Pace, Iris is one hell of a character. One minute she’s peaches and cream, the next minute she’s punches and screams. Davis gives us some tasty catfight shots between the two women before Iris uses a model boat—the same one O’Malley has promised the faithful Back to Africa folks—to fracture Mabel’s skull. O’Malley takes a page from his nemesis, Coffin Ed, and bitchslaps Iris unconscious, leaving her to pay for her sins when the cops show up.
That bale of cotton, the one in the title, winds up in the hands of a junk man played by Redd Foxx. This was before Sanford and Son, though a scene with Foxx and Helen Martin plays like a dress rehearsal for Aunt Esther and Fred. Martin winds up with a huge hole in her dress as the result of an earlier, botched robbery where a man cut the hole to get at her money. Why was she keeping her money under her ass? Had she not heard that Black women kept their dough in their bras? Speaking of money, guess where that $87,000 is hidden in this paragraph? Here’s a hint: It’s not in Helen Martin’s ass.

Turns out the shootout at the film’s beginning was planned by O’Malley, who was going to take the money and run anyplace BUT Africa. It winds up planted in a bale of cotton, which was lost when Early Riser got creamed by those cars. The bad guys know where the money is, so whenever someone mentions they’ve seen the bale, gunfire ensues at its location. Foxx’s Uncle Bud sells the cotton for $30 to a rival junk dealer played by the guy who played Sam Breakstone on those cottage cheese commercials, but buys it back at the behest of his friend. Said friend is the boyfriend of the stripper Iris borrowed clothes from earlier. Neither O’Malley nor the mob knows the bale’s not there, which leads to a gunfight where O’Malley is captured by Ed and Digger. After the gunfight at Breakstone’s yard, he asks “Who would kill for junk?!” Coffin Ed and Digger have an answer, but that person has apparently killed Uncle Bud.
O’Malley’s questioned at the jail, but he refuses to cooperate, calling our heroes all manner of Uncle Toms and demanding to be sent back to his cell. They allow him to leave, where he’s met by the jailed Iris. She does NOT look good at all, and after being in jail she’s gone from pissed off sister to full blown nuclear bitch on wheels. She tells O’Malley she’s spilled the beans on his corrupt operation, and then attempts to whip his ass. Digger and Ed have their man and their proof, but the next day O’Malley makes bail and attempts to find his $87,000. Iris also makes bail, and she still wants to kill Deke’s criminal ass. So do the people he swindled. And the mob too. Of all of those, I’d be most afraid of Iris.

Earlier, I didn’t mention that stripper for nothing. When Iris comes by to get that dress, the stripper is complaining that her routine is “too Uncle Tom.” She needs something different. So when she winds up with the cotton thanks to her man, she decides to use it in her act. Galt MacDermot, one of the writers of Hair, wrote Cotton Comes to Harlem’s score, and the song he comes up with for this routine is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard. It’s as if someone said “take the title of this movie and bring me back a song.” Stripper girl doesn’t want Tomism, yet she comes onstage at the Apollo theater dressed like Mammy and proceeds to dance all over this cotton while George Tipton sings some warped ass lyrics:

Down South, we sweat and strain
We were the prisoners of cotton
But when cotton comes to Harlem,
We kick cotton’s ass!

Down South, cotton was king
A Black man’s life meant not a damn thing.
So when cotton comes to Harlem
I kick cotton’s ass!

I suppose Tipton wears silk underwear.

Sondheim’s strippers sang “You Gotta Have A Gimmick,” but this is fucking insane. The woman strips down to this skimpy bra and panties, both of which are covered in cotton balls. She looks like Peter Cottontail doing ass claps. The audience goes wild. You deserve to see this routine before you die. Hell, it might even kill you. I refuse to believe the filmmakers expected me to take this scene seriously.

Is your cotton stretching right about now?

Everything comes to a head onstage. There’s a White man in blackface, a preacher having a nervous breakdown, a surprise in the cotton, an even bigger surprise by Digger and Ed that reverses the cottony surprise, and a completely out of place change of attitude by Iris. Digger and Ed solve the case, and Uncle Bud turns out to be in Heaven, but not actually dead. I wish I could show you the last shot in this film, which is of Redd Foxx and totally appropriate for that filthy, filthy man, but you’ll never be able to watch Sanford and Son again if I do.

Cotton Comes To Harlem is very well acted. Godfrey Cambridge is funny and credible as Digger, and Raymond St. Jacques, who starred in three of the four Himes adaptations, makes a fine bad cop to Cambridge’s good cop. The screenplay by Davis and (Spike Lee's film) Malcolm X cowriter Arnold Perl is full of funny lines, some taken directly from the book, and tightly written sequences. Lockhart is excellent here; at the film’s climax, he shows how pride does indeed goeth before the fall, revealing his character’s braggadocio as yet another con game. Surpassing him is his foil, Judy Pace who, a year later, would play Billy Dee Williams’ wife in the unforgettable Brian’s Song. The spirit of Chester Himes’ writing lives in her performance. I knew I was in love with her when, late in the film, she breaks a bottle and goes after the man who done her wrong. I didn’t buy her last minute change of heart for one moment, but I was too hooked to care.

Tomorrow, another fine soul sistah with a mean streak graces Black History Mumf in service to Chester Himes’ vision.

Ladies, don't fight! There's plenty of me to go around!


brandon said...

Have been enjoying the entire series and would comment if my comment wouldn't just be "THIS IS GREAT!" over and over. Especially liked this one though. I'd love to see a movie of Himes' "Plan B" one day. Actually, I'd like a time machine so it could be made at the same time at "Cotton" and others...

odienator said...

Thanks a lot, Brandon! Plan B would be interesting, as would Cast the First Stone. I thought about writing on Welcome Back, Charleston Blue (not a bad sequel to Cotton), but I really wanted to do A Rage in Harlem. Now if the internet will cooperate here in Ireland...

Boone said...

Odie, remember when we were kids and Cotton came to local TV just about twice a day? Seems I would always happen upon it just as Cleavon Little was sobbing and snitching as the the image flashed back to a flying negro. And, yeah, the other scene where the militant gets tossed B.A. Barackus-style.

I would like to see somebody do The Real Cool Killers, if only to recreate an amazing scene involving watermelon seeds and a giant ass. Or was that The Crazy Kill? Anyway, somebody should film all of these crazy Harlem books. But who could do an Ossie Davis-caliber job today...? For one thing, Ossie crammed so many great actors in one flick...

I agree, Brandon, its hard to comment on individual pieces this mumf without being redundant: This is great, Odie.

odienator said...

I realized yesterday that practically the entire cast has gone on to glory. Cleavon, Raymond, Godfrey, Eugene Roche, Calvin Lockhart, and its director, Ossie Davis. Wow.

The A Rage in Harlem post will go up tomorrow when I fly home. The internet is too shaky in this hotel.

I used to always catch Cotton Comes to Harlem on TV at the part where Helen Martin was walking away with that big hole in her dress. She's got a great line in A Rage In Harlem that I will be quoting for sure.

Anonymous said...

Rather cool blog you've got here. Thank you for it. I like such themes and anything connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

Best regards
Steave Markson

Unknown said...

Really it is great site.This site improving organizations. I am very glad to join this wonderful site.If U like to join Us then Contact us============
KPO Projects Available

Unknown said...

I like old movies So i like it
Best Bpo In India