Black Caesar

The Devil Says

See It

It's blaxploitation, '30s style. Black Caesar is modeled on 1931's Little Caesar, in which a cheap, dim, but ruthless Italian-American hood rises from nothing to become crime lord of the city, only to lose it all even quicker. It was the mold for the gangster genre, and needed only slight color tweaking to thrill a new audience.

This time, the cheap but ruthless hood is Tommy Gibbs. A poor kid with little hope of advancing in the white world, he helps in a mob hit, and ends up beaten by a sadistic, corrupt, and racist cop. Pam Grier nudeHe emerges from jail years later with a limp, a smile, and the ambition to take over the city. Joyfully gunning down a mid-level mobster who was no longer trusted by the Mafia, Gibbs charms and murders his way to power. Of course, when you kill and humiliate that many people, you're bound to make a few enemies (and some are even likely to survive).

I do love Tommy Gibbs. It isn't all the people he kills, and there are many, but how much gusto he puts into it. He's so charming and such a twisted son of a bitch. Football star turned actor Fred Williamson is electric as the lead. He's charismatic and powerful. It is by far his best performance (though he's a force of nature in From Dusk Till Dawn), and he turns what could have been a ho-hum shoot'em up into compelling drama—well, compelling drama with a whole lot of people getting themselves very, very dead.

Pam Grier CoffyTommy is aided by his childhood friend Rufus, who's become a preacher because the tax-free status of a church is useful in laundering money. As a criminal, he's a hypocritical bastard, but he's scarier when he starts believing that God has spoken to him. (Yeah, most people are frightening at that point.  Trust me, God isn't chatting to anybody.)

This is a low budget movie (since it's blaxploitation, that's a given). For most of the film, the lack of cash has little effect, but it does strip the tension from a later scene. Tommy is wounded and escaping in a cab through slow New York traffic as two gunmen chase him on foot. Tommy then uses his newly developed ventriloquist powers; he's talking, but his lips aren't moving. And because that doesn't look bad enough, he leaps from the moving vehicle, which was probably doing about one mile an hour before the film was sped up to give it a Keystone Cops feeling. Oh well. Flaws are part of the genre.

Black Caesar is a gripping, violent movie. You'll find a lot of what makes blaxploitation interesting, including an urban setting, mainly black actors, nudity (not a lot), a funky soundtrack by James Brown, slimy Caucasians, and the sight of a black man explaining the evils of racism to a cop who doesn't survive the explanation. But it is also restrained, treading lightly on its exploitation elements. The clothing is nearly normal for the era and no fur-clad super-pimp strides about the streets with a line of hos a few steps behind. Racial slurs come every few minutes, but there's no over-the-top "hip cat" dialog. So, if you wish, you can take the film seriously and justify watching it to your film appreciation professor. Me, I just sit back and enjoy the blood.

Sins (What does this mean?)

Pride No one has embraced Pride. They are all vain fools who are bound to fall or weak sheep who will never rise.
Sloth Nada.
Avarice Wanting more only leads to destruction. On the other hand, you do see what having little does to people. Either way, you lose.
Gluttony Nada.
Aesthetics Nada. 
Surrogate Cruelty Some real gems here. The best: a massacre of the Italian mob at a swimming party and Tommy pointing out to the cop that racism is bad; he points this out many times with a blunt instrument.
Thought A more sober look at race relations than you'll find in most blaxploitation films.
Humor Surprisingly, there are some funny moments, as long as you've got a dark sense of humor. Reverend Rufus cracks me up.
Lust Tommy "rapes" his girlfriend and later she seduces him, both times with brief nudity.

Buy It


Film Info

Writer/Director/producer: Larry Cohen

Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund, D'Urville Martin Julius Harris

Composer: James Brown

Runtime: 87 min





Both Gloria Hendry, Tommy's girlfriend, and Julius Harris, his estranged father, played major roles in Live and Let Die, James Bond's excursion into blaxploitation released the same year.




The sequel, Hell Up In Harlem, was also released in 1973.