Black Caesar Review
After first coming to this reviewer's attention in the dialogue that ends Public Enemy's Burn, Hollywood, Burn, as Ice Cube tells Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D and Flavor Flav that they're wasting their time watching Driving Miss Daisy in the cinema when they could be back at the crib watching Black Caesar, it's been a long time since that point to now but the feeling is one of having seen it all before, not one but a number of times.
Starring Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs, a shoeshine boy involved in petty crime for a local hood who, following a police investigation into the activities of his boss, takes his chance to move to the top of the criminal hill in New York with but a few strategic steps. Gibbs works hard to place himself at the centre of the black neighbourhood making clever use of his brother, Rufus (D'Urville Martin), as a preacher, albeit a fake one, to give himself some responsibility. As Gibbs takes over many of the activities of the Italian mob, firstly by taking out one brother in a major criminal family then preempting a return hit by having his men slaughter the rest of the family in a raid on a party at a mansion in California, his rise to success is swift but he fails to hear the sound of everyone he's crossed getting back onto their feet and speaking of when, not if, they will take their revenge.
Written, produced and directed by cult filmmaker Larry Cohen one year after his debut movie, Housewife and a year before the movie that broke him out of blaxploitation (the demon-baby classic, It's Alive), Black Caesar is a largely fine example of the genre. In keeping with the blaxploitation tradition, the plot is borrowed from a prior film, which in this case, is Mervyn LeRoy's 1931 gangster film, Little Caesar, which starred Edward G. Robinson. Little Caesar not only provides the template for Black Caesar but even meets the blaxploitation cliche of having the title bear a connection to the film on which it has been based, changed only to reinforce the race of the major members of the cast, a trick also pulled with Blacula and Black Shampoo. However, if the plot also seems familiar and you haven't seen either of these films, then it is likely that viewers of either Howard Hawks' or Brian de Palma's versions of Scarface from 1932 and 1983, respectively, will also be considering that the similarity doesn't end with the LeRoy classic.
In essence, this is the essential problem with Black Caesar and one that is shared by other blaxploitation films - they bring little that is new or innovative beyond what is brought by the films that have obviously influenced them. Of course, you could say that this is largely missing the point in that, at the height of its popularity, blaxploitation was famous for simply remaking existing movies with a black cast in much the same way as porn movies do with hardcore sex. There are, however, an ample number of opportunities for Black Caesar to comment on the difficulty that young black men in the US have in trying to live a life away from crime when society expects nothing less from them than to drift into petty crime and to die young. There is one attempt to make some point when Gibbs has been shot and is walking through New York with a blood stain growing in size, only for the surrounding crowd to look at him as if to say, "Black man with a gunshot wound...nothing unusual in that!" but this may have more to do with the fact that Cohen was working on a limited budget than any consideration given to making a comment on the racism inherent in white American society in 1973.
Otherwise, this is not a bad film albeit largely forgettable but for one scene late in the film where Gibbs takes revenge on the racist cop that has been hounding him from his youth. The cast is alright but Fred Williamson is the only actor that really stands out. Sadly, the film is just let down by its lack of ambition and anyone really interested in watching a movie about the rapid rise and fall of a gangster would be so much better off watching Little Caesar or either version of Scarface, all of which try and succeed at being rather more daring than Black Caesar.
Black Caesar is anamorphically presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and, whilst the transfer is good, the print from which it is sourced is a little grainy, most notably in long-distance shots or in naturally-lit external scenes.
The film has been transferred with a 2.0 Mono soundtrack and sounds good, assisted no end by a storming James Brown soundtrack that tends to cover for dialogue and sound effects that seem to be badly balanced with the former too low in the mix and the latter sounding just too harsh.
The only bonus feature is the following:
Theatrical Trailer (2m16s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Mono): Backed by a wonderfully funky blast of '73-era wah-wah that owes much to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, this covers much of Gibbs' rise to prominence in New York's criminal hierarchy but is ruined by giving away the ending of the movie. Do not watch this prior to the film, therefore, if you want the ending to be a surprise.
I suspect that it is unlikely that anyone buying this is not also buying many of the other releases in the MGM Soul Cinema line, of which this is undoubtedly one of the more famous entries. Whilst not bad, it's certainly not impressive enough to break away from the rest of the discs released in this line and one suspects that it is simply the film's unwillingness to take risks that has meant it is but an average experience, lacking even the more outrageous moments in a number of the other films.
Larry Cohen would go on to much better films, although Hell Up In Harlem, which sees Fred Williamson return as Tommy Gibbs in the sequel to Black Caesar, is not one of them but if nothing else, this film is an example of an age when exploitation filmmakers gave black cinema a voice albeit one that was a little muted. It may not be a defining moment in cinema history but Public Enemy were spot on when they said that it was better than Driving Miss Daisy.