Cotton Comes to Harlem

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.