We open on a stately Rolls Royce, trailed by a gold-plated armored truck, parading through the streets of Harlem. The world it navigates is vibrant and colorful, filled with sidewalk shops, children at play, and men on stoops watching the world pass by. The opening song, sung by Melba Moore with lyrics penned by the film’s director, states the underlying theme of the movie: “Ain’t now, but it’s gonna be… black enough for me.” It’s a refrain repeated by characters throughout the story that follows and the question at the heart of the film. The movie is “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970), the directorial debut by the great actor Ossie Davis, featured this December (2021).
Adapted from Chester Himes’ novel of the same name, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” is a hard-boiled neo noir with a nearly all-African American cast. Raymond St. Jacques and the underrated Godfrey Cambridge head the cast as Himes’ detectives “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Gravedigger” Jones. The plot revolves around the robbery of $87,000 from a back-to-Africa scheme perpetrated by a charlatan preacher named Deke O’Malley (the excellent Calvin Lockhart), the machinations of his femme fatale girlfriend Iris (played with vicious delight by Judy Pace), and the whereabouts of the movie’s MacGuffin, a wayward bale of cotton from which the story takes its title.
Like any genre film, the characters and circumstance are somewhat stock: no-nonsense cops, tough-talking dames, and a trail that leads through a criminal underground. However, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” subverts those tropes through its milieu and characters. For one of the first times in a modern studio movie, we see African American characters portrayed with agency and self-determination. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are respected, although begrudgingly, by their white peers for knowing their beat and ability to get results. Even more revolutionary, they are shown giving orders without question to their Anglo subordinates. While the movie has its share of criminal stereotypes standard in pulp fiction, alongside the pickpockets and petty thieves we see more respectable citizens and a broader spectrum of life in Harlem circa 1970.
In following the trajectory of the contraband cotton bale, Davis finds opportunity to comment on the black experience. From its origins in Mississippi, its migration North, and as it changes hands, the cotton bale is both a reminder of American history and a symbol of American opportunity. This subplot culminates in a clever sequence in which the cotton bale serves as the centerpiece of a burlesque show.
Considered by many to be the first movie of the “Soul Cinema” era, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” avoids succumbing to the more exploitative aspects of the genre. It’s mostly just a rollicking good time with pleasures to be found in the clothes, attitude, and morals of a bygone era. Keep an eye out for early performances from Clevon Little and comedian Redd Foxx.
Watch “Cotton Comes to Harlem” – December (2021) on MGM HD.