Black Caesar (1973)

BLACK CAESAR (1973, Larry Cohen)

Blaxploitation crime drama about an Afro-American crime boss (Fred Williamson) in Harlem, his bloody conflicts with the Italian Mafia and his live-long feud with an Irish police captain (Art Lund, in a good performance), who almost crippled him as a kid, when he was a shoe polisher. The movie was well-received by contemporary critics and was also hailed for the score by legendary soul artist James Brown (in reality most of the material was written by Brown’s band leader, jazz trombonist Fred Wesley). For a B-movie, Black Caesar is quite ambitious, presenting Williamson not simply as a brother who kicks some white ass, but rather as a tragic person fighting racial prejudice while working himself up in the Harlem underworld, but losing all touch with reality and therefore ending up being as bad as the racist schmuck he’s trying to chase from the black neighborhood.

Like the character, the movie over-stretches its own possibilities; it’s not bad, but it’s too crude to fulfill its higher ambitions. We get a few effective action moments, in particular a sequence of a wounded Williamson being chased by hired killers in the streets of Manhattan, but in the end this is no more than a black version of a subject (the rise and inevitable fall of a crime boss) that has been filmed many times before and after, often by better directors, and with better actors. The script is serviceable but ultimately predictable and Williamson is cool, but no Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney or Al Pacino. His sideburns are definitely more impressive than his thespian talents.



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