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Entries in Black Caesar [1973] (1)


Black Caesar (1973)

Blacker Mass

For anyone thinking of heading to the movies this weekend to experience Johnny Depp’s much-praised performance as a gangster in Black Mass, I humbly recommend you stay home and pop in Black Caesar instead. I found Larry Cohen’s 1973 blaxploitation picture to be more relevant, more compelling, and more worthwhile than that bloated Goodfellas-meets-Dracula wannabe. I think you might, too.

It all comes down to teeth. Like Depp, Fred Williamson plays a career criminal who spends his life building a street empire through intimidation, violence, and sheer cunning. Williamson has an advantage of authenticity, though, crafting a beautifully complex character in the irredeemable Tommy Gibbs. From the opening scene, in which a young Tommy (Omer Jeffrey) helps a corrupt cop named McKinney (Art Lund) assassinate a business rival; to his active betrayal of every associate he used to get to the top; to the rape of his long-time girlfriend (Gloria Hendry), there is no mistaking him for an anithero. He’s a villain through and through, yet his affable charisma gives him the air of a politician who loves to make his enemies laugh as he moves in for figurative and literal kills (my own perception of Williamson in this role, which greatly influenced my reading of the part, was that Williamson looked like a young hybrid of Mitt Romney and OJ Simpson).

Cohen doesn't make a case for his protagonist, but he creates a sprawling universe of filth for Tommy to conquer. Every cop is on the payroll of one of several mob families; the local priest (D'Urville Martin) is a childhood friend and a gang lieutenant; and the big man himself walks with a permanent limp, the result of a savage beating McKinney dealt him as a boy--before seeing that he spent twelve years in prison on bogus charges. Upon release, Tommy makes his way up the food chain, patiently taking control of the gangs, the Mafia, and ever-expanding turf. He becomes a feared leader in a community that never lifts a finger to oppose him.

Black Caesar pre-dates Brian De Palma's Scarface by ten years, and it's easy to see Gibbs as the template for Tony Montana (and Tony Montana as the template for characters like Whitey Bulger*). Where Montana is a psychopath, though, Gibbs is a sociopath, and that razor-thin distinction makes a huge difference in the quality of his story. Gibbs will stop at nothing to succeed, but he also expresses a deep love for his mother (Minnie Gentry). After buying his crooked lawyer's luxury apartment, he turns the keys over to his mom, who has worked as a maid in the all-white high-rise for decades. We also get hints of empathy (or at least introspection) in the way Gibbs deals with his estranged father (Juilus Harris) when he shows up seeking reconciliation. In just a few minutes, the characters get a glimpse at a life that could have been better, were it not for a series of bad decisions and miscommunication. Scarface forgot to give its protagonist a heart, substituting the visceral for the existential; both characters are tragic, but Montana's lasting emotional impression is that he was assassinated while extremely high and armed to the teeth.

I've spent an inordinate amount of time comparing Black Caesar to other movies, probably because I'm puzzled as to why it doesn't enjoy the same mainstream popularity as Black Mass and Scarface. To me, it's a hidden gem that pushes key ideas from those films and de-emphasizes the sensationalism that renders their grace notes flat. Larry Cohen's film is less polished than the others, occasionally slipping into the poor acting and 70s-era aesthetic cheese that De Palma and Scott Cooper largely avoided. But it aspires to be a contemporary version of its Shakespearian namesake, a legitimate drama touching on the pitfalls of power, but reflected through a distinct prism of race and socio-economic circumstances.

It's hard not to bring a contemporary consciousness into Black Caesar, especially for anyone, like me, seeing the film for the first time. Cohen bookends his story with two scenes of incredible violence, both involving what we've come to know as the "unarmed black teen/man". In the first instance, it is indeed the police that inflict unjust harm on a boy who is not exactly innocent--but who certainly doesn't deserve the punishment he's dealt. In the final scene, Tommy Gibbs reaps the consequences of having learned the wrong lesson from his youthful encounters with authority: bloody, weakened and delirious, he stumbles into the remnants of his old neighborhood, where he is beset by a mob of black youth wielding pipes, bottles, and an overwhelming urge to remove unsightly elements from their turf. It's a nifty and chilling twist on ol' Will's demolition-of-rule theme (set to James Brown's hard-driving funk, no less), and a reminder that, more than forty years on, Gibbs' fictitious legacy of systemic, cyclical violence is more than just the stuff of movies.

*Yes, I realize White Bulger was a real guy. I'm striclty talking him as a "Based on a True Story" movie--which, as we've discussed before, often take a great deal of license in shaping real-life events into cheap, narrative sausage for mass consumption.