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Speaking of Book-to-Film Adaptations, Remastered 'Cotton Comes To Harlem' (Based on Chester Himes' Novel) Comes To Blu-Ray

by Sergio
July 5, 2014 10:49 AM
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I know everyone talks about wanting to see Octavia Butler’s novels up on the big screen but, speaking for myself, the writer whose works I would love to see most on the big screen is Chester Himes. And by that, I mean his series of detective novels with his two immortal characters - the NYPD detective team of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

Those novels, "The Real Cool Killers," "The Heats On," "The Crazy Kill," "All Shot Up," "The Big Gold dream" and "A Rage in Harlem" are incredibly exciting, funny, visceral, fast paced thrillers, and Himes had an extraordinary visual sense and style to his works. They seem ready made for films, as if he had the movie of the novel in his head as he was writing them. Whole scenes can be lifted off the pages of his books to the screen with little effort.

For example, I think of the opening of his 1959 book "The Real Cool Killers," which literally begins with a white guy running for his life down Harlem streets, with seemingly hundreds of black people after him (like, the absolute worst nightmare of every Fox News viewer come to life). Can’t you just see that on the screen already?

A few of his novels have made it to the movies, such as the 1968 film version of his dramatic novel "If He Hollers Let him Go" with Raymond St. Jacques, though, unfortunately, it bore little resemblance to the actual novel. But there’s also Bill Duke’s 1991 highly enjoyable "A Rage in Harlem," in which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are supporting characters in the film, and "The Heat’s On." which I’ll get into shortly.

But most who've read Himes, and have seen the film agrees that, perhaps the 1970 United Artists film version of his 1965 book "Cotton Come to Harlem" is the one that most closely captures the spirit and tone of Himes’ novels.

Though the film plays up substantially the comedy aspects of the book, the film is rollicking good fun. Breathlessly paced, violent and at times cleverly sending up established stereotypes, the film has enough car chases, shootouts and crazy action for two movies (I still vividly remember my father taking me to see it when it came out, and laughing his head off during the film).

Co-written and directed by the legendary Ossie Davis, in his feature film directing debut, and starring Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed, as well as the great groundbreaking comedian Godfrey Cambridge (to whom practically every major black major comedian of the last 50 years owes a serious debt to), Calvin Lockhart, Redd Foxx and Judy Pace, the film tells of the frenzy that ensues when a team of white robbers steal $87,000 from a fraudulent cob man preacher (Lockhart) and hide it in a bale of Mississippi cotton.

Suddenly, before they can blink their eyes, the two detectives find themselves up to their necks in madness, chaos and shootouts when everybody and their grandmother turns Harlem upside down, trying to find that bale of cotton.

This is the film that really set off the whole Blaxploitation era of the 70’s, a year before "Shaft" and "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song" came out - films that are usually given the credit. Cotton was a box office hit and, for example, in Chicago alone, it played in one downtown theater for over six months. In fact the theater illegally changed the films’ rating from R to PG just to get more people to see it.

The film was so successful that it spawned a sequel from Warner Bros in 1972, "Come Back Charleston Blue" (not directed by Ossie Davis), which was the film version of Himes’ novel "The Heat’s On."

Though it was a disappointment, compared to "Cotton," it definitely does have its moments of Himes’ inspired wackiness, including an insane, over-the-top shootout in a cemetery, and a nun’s habit-wearing transvestite killer.

Though Cotton has been available for years on an old non-anamorphic MGM/Fox DVD, made from a sub-par print, the great news is that, Kino Lorber, in their weekly ever-increasing list of upcoming titles for their new Kino Studio Classics series (on which they are releasing older UA titles from the 50’s to the 70’s), will be releasing a remastered, anamorphic blu-ray DVD of "Cotton Comes to Harlem" on Sept 9th

Though sadly all the major principals - Davis, Cambridge, St. Jacques, Lockhart and Himes - are long gone, hopefully there will be commentaries and some other extra features on the DVD. However none have been announced as yet.

And there still are another 4 Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones books ready to be filmed. Problem is, who could play those roles today? I haven’t a clue. Sign of the times.

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More: Book To Film, Chester Himes, Ossie Davis

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  • CareyCarey | July 9, 2014 1:44 PMReply

    OH MY, is this post a cautionary tale?!

    " I don't want no Ni**er on this lot" ~ Jack Warner

    Those are the words of Warner Brothers HNIC before he terminated Chester Himes' screenwriter career at his studio.

    "Lots of black people aren't investing in acting careers [including writers] because they are unsure of making money because they are told no one wants to see black movies" ~ Artbizzy

    And whatever happened to Eric Monte, the black writer behind All In The Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening?

    Btw, after Chester Himes "successes", it would be more than 30 years until another black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series hit the big screen. Has anyone seen Walter Mosley, lately? In fact, where have all the great black writers gone? More importantly, today, are their any new ones who are rich enough, or courageous enough, or some might say stupid enough to jump in that oven? Btw, if you didn't know, Chester Himes eventually settled in France with fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

    "I know, everyone talks about wanting to see Octavia Butlers novels up on the big screen but... " ~ Sergio M.

    ... but is that merely wishful thinking or days long gone bye-bye?

  • urbanauteur | July 9, 2014 10:54 AMReply

    @SERGIO, dont overlook Chester Himes underrated late novel-PLAN B & his short stories whith blood,sweat & guts spilling out the pages;-)- he's one of my top 5 black writers;-)

  • Mike | July 8, 2014 3:06 PMReply

    I haven't read the books or seen any of the movies. However, by watching the clip above I have to agree with Sergio that Michael Ealy and Anthony Mackie are to soft. I also think that Eddie Murphy and Cedric The Entertainer are to old. I would go with a lesser known black actor like Michael Jai White or Omari Hardwick.

    I am glad Mark & Darla and CareyCarey brought up who to direct it. If I had to choose one. I would consider five names that weren't considered: Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day), F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, The Italian Job), Allen and Albert Hughes a.k.a The Hughes Brothers (Menace To Society, Dead Presidents), John Singleton ( Abduction, Boyz n the Hood), Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails, directed episodes on numerous television shows like "Treme", "True Blood, and "Once Upon A Time." I would also choose Allen Hughes who directed the 2013 film "Broken City" as a solo director.

  • Douglas Gill | July 7, 2014 8:59 AMReply

    Sergio and Carey -

    Standing by my selections which are based more on reading the source materials AND on what the media output was (network show, limited series, or theatrical release). Ealy and Mackie would easily carry a network series if Gravedigger and Coffin Ed were ‘reimagined’ in a contemporary setting as network shows then to be. There lack of weight is more a lack of opportunity in part selection.

    Giancarlo is good at smouldering and Andre is good at verbal intimidation

    A few years ago I would have picked Samuel L. and Denzel – great actors, but not who you envision when you read the books.

  • Carey | July 7, 2014 9:30 AM

    Douglas, you do have a great point.

    When I chose Lawrence Fishborne (below) I was thinking of the source material not Godfrey Cambridge. In fact, I was never a big Cambridge fan. And, I could not and can not stand Watermelon Man.

    And Anthony Mackie... well, to say it lightly, I am not a fan. I'm tellin' ya, not since Foot Locker, or whatever that was, has that man showed me he deserves all the opportunities he's being afforded. Did you see him in Repentance with Forest Whitaker?

    However, since you're talking a network series, you could be on the money.

    Side note: I don't do any network series. I barely-rarely do TV.

  • Jug | July 7, 2014 3:42 AMReply

    Very interested in this idea...Very. :-D

  • CC | July 7, 2014 10:11 AM

    @ Jug **FIST POUND** its been a minute.

  • Douglas Gill | July 6, 2014 5:27 PMReply

    If I wanted to go with “older” actors or limited series I would pick: Giancarlo Esposito as Gravedigger and Andre Braugher as Coffin Ed. If I wanted “younger actors” or a network series I would go with: Michael Ealy as Gravedigger and Anthony Mackie as Coffin Ed. If I wanted straight-up “bad asses” or theatrical release I would pick – Michael Jai White as Gravedigger and Idris Elba as Coffin Ed.

  • CareyCarey | July 7, 2014 1:45 AM

    Mark & Darla,

    You're right, Lawrence may not fit the role as portrayed by Godfrey Cambridge. And you know what, earlier I mentioned Eddie Murphy and Cedric The entertainer playing the parts, but check that. Tonight I just finished watching Eddie and Martin Lawrence in "Life" (for the umpteenth time). That movie, imo, is in the top 3 of black comedies with a wee bit of drama. Both comedians played off each other to a tee. Pure classic black cinema. Therefore, I now change my pick to Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence as Coffin Ed & Gravedigger Jones.

  • Mark & Darla | July 6, 2014 11:28 PM

    Lawrence is not a comedian, Godfrey brought a humorous flair to digger jones character, Martin Lawrence seem like a best case scenario to play digger jones.

  • CareyCarey | July 6, 2014 9:06 PM

    Thank you Sergio. I'm glad somebody said before me... Ealy and Mackie is more suited to play the two brothers Yogi Bear & Boo-Boo than Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed.

    I'm even questioning Giancarlo Esposito as Gravedigger Jones? I mean, he may have intimidated Half-Pint as Dean Big Brother Almighty of Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity in Spike's School Daze, but no-no to brotha Jones. But a big yes to his nemesis Vaughn "Dap" Dunlap ( Lawrence Fishburne). Come to think of it, Fishburne IS the quintessential Grave Digger Jones! Don't you think, Sergio?

  • sergio | July 6, 2014 7:14 PM

    Ealy and Mackie? Forget it They don't have the masculine "weight" to play those characters. Way too soft

  • Joe Leydon | July 5, 2014 10:44 PMReply

    Saw this one back in the day in my hometown of New Orleans, at the old Loews State Theatre. Still remember the song sung during the film: "When cotton comes to Harlem, we kick's cotton's ass." And Godfrey Cambridge's explaining "black" behavior to a white colleague: "My people. My people." And of course: How did you know they were white? "They run white." Speaking of movies that should be revisited: I recall Mario Van Peebles' "Watermelon Man" having flaws, but I also remember being impressed by Cambridge's performance. Final scene, depicting his character's radicalization, was a knockout.

  • Joe Leydon | July 6, 2014 12:47 AM

    D'oh. You're right. MELVIN Van Pebbles' "Watermelon Man." His big studio (Columbia) follow-up to "Sweet Sweetback."

  • sergio | July 5, 2014 11:10 PM

    You mean MELVIN Ven Peebles Watermelon Man don't you?

  • Mark & Darla | July 5, 2014 1:49 PMReply

    One of the ingredient that makes a movie great to me is pacing, one of the ingredient that make a great director to me is his/her pacing skill that speck to me watching their movie. Ossie Davis movies “Cotton comes to Harlem” and “Black Girl’ speck to me in high volume, will never get tire of watching those two movies.

    Ossie Davis was a great director.

  • CareyCarey | July 5, 2014 2:10 PM

    Hello Mark & Darla, you've ushered in the BIGGER question, which black director could tote this barge and lift THIS bale? Well, lets see, there's Bill Dukes, Spike, Tyler Perry (lol), Ava Duvaney & Kasi Lemons (gotta give the women a shot, right?), Lee Daniels (yeah, I know), Reggie Rock, Salim & Mara Akil, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), or even Tim Story? Y'all make the call.

  • CareyCarey | July 5, 2014 1:42 PMReply

    "Problem is, who could play those roles today? I haven’t a clue."

    Hold that thought. First, I have to say this was a great post. That paragraph on Fox News viewers worst nightmare was the comment of the month.

    re: Who could play those roles. Let me throw something on the floor. Everyone remembers Harlem Nights, right? Well, the cast was filled with blasts from the past and current A-Listers. Well, what about a time called now? Now Eddie Murphy is the older actor and so is Cedric The Entertainer. They could certainly play the detectives. And I'm thinking the Bad Boys duo Will Smith and Martin Lawrence will fit as well. Other cast members... Pam Greer, Lupita Nyoungo, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Uzo Aduba (Orange is The New Black), Chadwick Boseman.

  • sergio | July 5, 2014 2:41 PM

    Eddie and Cedric. You know, you might have something there

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