Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), directed by Ossie Davis.

A charismatic preacher running a "Back to Africa" campaign enjoys wide community and political support. The only ones not buying it are some neighborhood Militants and -- more importantly -- police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones: "Two damn black maniacs on a powder keg". These would be Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge, who should have gotten a series out of this.

When the funds are stolen in a violent heist, it's off the races to find out who's doing what to whom. And why is everyone after a stray bale of cotton that has mysteriously found its way into Harlem?

I hadn't seen this for decades and it has a more filmed-in-the-streets look than I remember. I'd also forgotten gorgeous Judy Pace (nudity!) who worked a lot but was never a big star.

It's called early blaxploitation and does have a bunch of those characteristics: funny, sexy and violent, black vs white, people vs The Man, ordinary decent folk vs the exploiters.

It also has unusually pointed criticisms. Militants, crooked clergy, sincere clergy, church ladies, street hustlers, pathetic junkies: all spend time in the barrel.

On the down side, the plot loses coherence at times, and the crowds are hard to understand: they love you, then they hate you, but it's not clear why. It's also disappointing that our heroes have to be bailed out by the mafia guy in the end.

I'd forgotten: (1) Detective Grave Digger Jones carries a flare gun he uses to visit pyrotechnic mayhem on the bad guys, and (2) the Traveling Man: a character walking through several scenes who seems to be looking for a bed.

Small roles for Redd Foxx and Cleavon Little.

Available on Blu-ray from Kino.