Black Caesar Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
The brutal assault at the hands of a racist cop will inform the life of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), who will grow up to become the reigning head of Harlem’s black mafia in Black Caesar. Establishing a mob empire that challenges the New York mafia’s stronghold on the city, Tommy will prove himself a worthy opponent and a natural-born enemy. His volatile romance with chanteuse Helen (Gloria Hendry) will set in motion a series of deadly events that the self-proclaimed criminal kingpin, the Black Caesar, may not escape. (From Olive’s official synopsis)
Larry Cohen, the unsung exploitation chronicler of ‘70s New York’s grit and grime, is best known for his high-concept horror/sci-fi movies – God Told Me To (1976), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), et cetera – but he cut his teeth writing and directing blaxploitation films. His career began with Bone (aka: Dial Rat, 1972), which was released only a year after Melvin Van Peebles’ genre-defining classic, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), followed closely by back-to-back action vehicles for dominant blaxploitation personality Fred Williamson. Black Caesar (aka: The Godfather of Harlem, 1973) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973) were released ten months apart by American International Pictures and feature Williamson as Tommy Gibbs, aka: The Black Caesar. The stronger of the two films is the first one, Black Caesar, which was conceived by Williamson and Cohen when the duo noticed that there hadn’t been any black mob bosses in movies. It is sometimes misattributed as a cash-in on The Godfather (1974), but was actually released more than a month before Coppola’s film. Factually, Cohen based his screenplay on a much older film, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931).
Blaxploitation movies were often brutal and exploitative views of the African Americans in New York during the ‘70s, but were also a celebration, however unscrupulous, of working-class black America. These films were presented as unpretentious entertainment, which made them popular with middle-class white Americans, who could choose to ignore the major social messages hidden beneath their surface. It’s fascinating that a Jewish boy from the Bronx was able to channel so much of the black experience into a tightly-knit, but predictable rise to power’ gangster flick. Cohen’s entire filmography is flecked with political and religious satire that rarely begs to be taken seriously. Though it’s never as powerfully subversive as Van Peebles’ work, Black Caesar does make distinctive and painfully ironic statements about black society in the years following the Civil Rights Movement, all while fulfilling the promise of pure entertainment. The cultural resonance may appear crude in retrospect (the whole film is something of a cartoon), but modern audiences do need to recognize exactly how marginalized black American entertainment was in the early ‘70s. Really, the only thing missing is Cohen’s patented sarcasm. Long-time collaborator D'Urville Martin gets in an occasional laugh as Gibb’s childhood friend-turned-reverend.
Williamson’s input also shouldn’t be understated. He doesn’t share a writing or directing credit with Cohen, but was certainly capable of steering the ship himself by the time Black Caesar went into production. After bit-parts in Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970), Williamson’s ex-football persona was exploited for Bruce Clark’s The Hammer (1972), at which point he took a more active role in the trajectory of his career by conceiving two pre-Civil War era westerns – The Legend of N***er Charley (directed by Martin Goldman, 1972) and The Soul of N***er Charley (directed by Larry Spangler, 1973). These purposefully controversial black cowboy movies (almost the first of their kind and released alongside Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher, 1972) make nice companion pieces to Black Caesar, even if they lack the raw, run ‘n gun style and authentic sense of brutality (a requirement of both the period setting and western genre trappings). Williamson’s performance here is pretty outstanding – perhaps even his best – by toeing the line between cool as ice hero, merciless villain, and charming everyman who just wants to impress his mother.
Like Kino, Shout Factory, and the other companies that have been leasing movies from MGM, Olive tends to just stick whatever they’re handed directly onto disc without any substantial digital remastering (which is fine – MGM is usually trustworthy). Black Caesar was released on barebones anamorphic DVDs by MGM in multiple territories and ran on MGMHD in 1080i. This 1080p, 1.85:1 release marks the film’s Blu-ray debut. The results are average for type. Details are well beyond DVD capabilities, but the film was shot so quickly in so many different photographically unfriendly environments that the quality fluctuates throughout the transfer. Grain levels do appear accurate as they ebb and flow, depending on the brightness of a scene. More problematic are the fuzzy qualities of some sequences. I imagine a larger sized scan (2K, 4K) and some digital tinkering could’ve produced more consistently sharp edges and crisp contrast, but I’m not sure if that would be in-keeping with the material. Colors are persistent without ever being particularly vibrant.
Black Caesar is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and its original mono sound. There’s little anyone could do with this material to make it sound ‘good.’ The whole film was shot so fast with so few takes that the on-set sound is flat and sometimes inconsistent. Some of the audio appears to have been recorded and mixed in post, especially the scenes Cohen stole on New York streets, which means that lip-sync can be off and background ambience tends to sound like library looped effects tracks. But there’s nothing Olive can really do about the inherent quality of the original material, so they do their best to make it clean and uncompressed. Much of the film’s enduring legacy is found in its James Brown-produced soundtrack – a first for the Hardest Working Man in Show Business®. Trombonist/arranger Fred Wesley also deserves a substantial portion of the credit for this infectious mix of underscore and more traditional funk tunage. Brown himself sings a number of tracks, including future hits “Boss” and “Big Daddy.”
There are zero supplemental features.
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