For Black History Month I'm writing about a blaxploitation film every Thursday in February. Our last film this month is Black Caesar.
Fred Williamson is Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar.
Fred Williamson is Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar. Courtesy of American International Pictures
I love watching Fred Williamson. The football player-turned-actor occupies the screen well—his natural charm, stature, and ability to wear the fuck out of a suit makes him perfect for roles in blaxploitation films like Black Caesar. The movie—adapted from 1931's Little Caesar—was originally written for Sammy Davis, Jr., who yearned for a badass starring role as opposed to being a minor player in Rat Pack films. But by the time the script by director/screenwriter Larry Cohen had been written, Davis had run into problems with the IRS and was unable to take the role. Seeing an opportunity for a Black action vehicle, American International Pictures hired Cohen to do the film with Williamson.

Assaulted as a teen by a viciously brutal white cop McKinney (Art Lund), Tommy Gibs (Williamson) turns to a life of crime, running the streets of Harlem as the head of the Black syndicate of New York mafia. He starts to set his sights too high, aggressively expanding his empire by targeting some Italian mobsters. Slowly, people become disenchanted with this fine man in a fedora hat and his successes. Things get a little Caesar-esque up in Harlem and Tommy soon has to look out for his own life as his friends and enemies begin to turn on him.

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The film was a huge hit with audiences when it premiered, leading to a less-celebrated sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. There are two things to watch for in Black Caesar. The first is the score done by James Brown—it's incredible. The soundtrack is the origin of "The Boss," whose guitar and horns are sampled on several rap songs, like Nas's "Get Down." I paid the cost to be the boss, Brown croons. The second is the sequence when Tommy gets shot in Manhattan. He's trying to make his way through crowded New York streets, past theaters playing The Godfather and real people are standing gawking at the cameras as the crew had no shooting permits. In addition to some interesting camerawork, it becomes a nice little preserved slice of NYC at the time.

Black Caesar is available on Prime Video, iTunes, Vudu, and Scarecrow Video. Also heads up, about halfway through is an upsetting scene of sexual assault. And if you're interested in learning more what went on behind the scenes this interview with Larry Cohen is illuminating.

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