Cotton Comes to Harlem was the beginning of short period in American film that featured black actors in leading roles and the themes dealt with issues from the African-American microcosm. With a screenplay by Arnold Perl and Ossie Davis, and directed by Davis this action drama represents the black prospective. Much of the film’s humor is urban black comedy, which was groundbreaking in 1970.
Based on the Chester Himes novel, the film chronicles the exploits of Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) two tough New York City police detectives. Reverend Deke O’Mailey (Calvin Lockhart) is ripping of the community selling trips back to Africa. When the money is stolen in a daring daytime robbery Gravedigger and Coffin Ed are in pursuit of the money, killers and the reverend.
In our montage we call, Iris, Officer Jarema and The Paper Bag, Gravedigger and Coffin Ed confront O’Mailey’s girlfriend Iris Brown (Judy Pace) at her apartment, and then leave Officer Jerema (Dick Sabol) to guard Iris. Unlike much of the sixties years of filmmaking that preceded Cotton Comes to Harlem a Caucasian character is depicted as a buffoon. We begin this scene with part of the opening credits because it was shot on 125 street. You can see what Harlem’s most famous street looked like circa 1970 (the Northwest corner of 125 Street and Lenox Avenue and the South side of 125 Street off Frederick Douglas Blvd. moving east across from the Apollo Theater).
Iris, Officer Jarema and The Paper Bag
Unfortunately within a few years Hollywood tried to cash in on the box office success of films like Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Shaft (1971),and Superfly (1972). They produced a series of lower quality movies with hot soundtracks geared for urban audiences. These films became known as Blaxploitation films and as the quality waned so did their popularity. Hollywood completely missed the message of Cotton Comes to Harlem by assuming that African-American audiences wanted shoot-em-up action flicks with black super-heroes. In a nutshell, black audiences wanted the same thing white audiences wanted, good movies.