|Plot Outline: Tommy Gibbs is a rough and tumble kid who grows up on the rough streets of Harlem where he is persecuted by a older and quite-crooked police officer. After the cop tries to permanently injure Tommy, the young kid disappears for a few years only to come back as a strong young man – who also happens to be doing very well as a hired killer. After taking a few people out, Tommy teams with the local mafia. He works as a hired assassin, but being a two-bit killer for the mob isn’t all Tommy aspires to be. He has big plans that are going to take him right to the top of the New York underworld – and then some. With great power and corruption just around the corner, will Tommy be able to hold up to the stress and danger that his high risk lifestyle will bring him?|
The Review: The “Blaxploitation” genre may not be looked upon by the more art-oriented (read: snobby) film critic circles as something that was as influential as that whole Dogme movement from Europe, but no matter what anyone can say or does – if you watch Black Caesar and consider it anything other than a dazzlingly good time; well then I’m afraid I must fight you to the death. Okay, maybe I’m not that serious about it, but after sitting through this magnificent little number, I find myself very disappointed with how little it is talked about these days. It’s not exactly a forgotten film by any stretch of the imagination, it seems to be more remembered than the equally classic Truck Turner, but just like it’s leading man – mainstream film fans probably know very little about it. Shaft and Richard Roundtree are probably the two things most film audiences can recall about the great movement that gave us all of these classics bits of cinema, but as far as actors from this period seem to go: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson might be my all-time favorite charisma machine to emerge from that long ago era. Usually when athletes make the jump to the big screen the results generally aren’t that impressive. As much as I have love for my big man Jim Brown, in flicks such as Slaughter, his charisma and acting abilities… well, let’s just say he’s gotten better over the years. Williamson, however, was something to witness when he was fresh out of the gate. With Black Caesar, he proved to me he was more than just a lot of charisma, this man had the genuine talent to back up his debonaire style. Sure, his performance is a little rough around the edges, but he delivers more heart and emotion in this role than I can remember seeing in many other Blaxploitation films. He makes you feel for the character of Tommy Gibbs and never simplifies the character. His charisma carries him in the film, but his talents make him something truly spectacular.
Black Caesar is probably one of the few Blaxpo films I can think of that stars a leading character who truly defines the concept of a “anti-hero”. Tommy Gibbs is about as ruthless and power hungry as any gangster gets, and the way he is portrayed in the film is not at all flattering. With this film and its sequel, Gibbs is shown to be an unforgiving and ferocious man who learns very little from his mistakes as far as morality – and he remains an unrepentant soul – but Fred Williamson’s performance is so strong, and he remains such a “cool” and likeable character throughout it all that it’s almost hard to dislike him. Basically, just imagine Michael Corleone from The Godfather II – after killing Fredo; and that’s essentially Tommy Gibbs, but made really charismatic. The Godfather references must end there, but you can’t help but take in how much of a true “gangster” film this really is. Bringing in the mafia elements and having our lead character as an actual hitman – I won’t say it brings “authenticity”, but it brings the street crime strictly out of the ghetto and opens up the film a lot making it more than just a piece of “soul cinema” – but also a really powerful crime film. Black Caesar, which I hear is also just an “urban” remake of the original Little Caesar (I’m in no way capable of varifying this, it has been AGES since I saw the original on TCM way back when), barely feels like the term Blaxploitation even begins to describe it since it’s so far out of the “exploitation” realm – if you can even refer to the Black Action movement as such. This film, and it’s sequel are a pair of the genres most violent entries that I have seen – but it is always used in the context of what best suits the story. If no other reason than the violence though – if you’re looking for a film with a massive body count; once again I have to promote the Tommy Gibbs series. It’s like Rambo in the ghetto, I swear. Especially in the sequel, which just goes bananas with the death toll reaching First Blood Part II levels. We’re talking armies of dead guys littering the floors. Sigh, have to love these flicks.
So I have to say my hopes were set pretty high for my next Fred Williamson flick after Bucktown so long ago, but they were fulfilled and I now have a new favorite action film/series. Talk about well deserving of more critical success in this day and age, I definitely think Black Caesar could catch on with a larger audience as it is now. With as much love as been produced as of recent for tough, no-nonsense, gritty, urban gangster films – since Hollywood sure isn’t making any, why not turn to the past. So if you’re a fan of your more common crime films, meaning mafia oriented or more traditional (as I am a big fan), then check out these classics. Williamson and the ever popular director Larry Cohen (who before delving into Black Caesar/Hell Up In Harlem, I had pretty much only seen The Stuff from him) crafted two of the most memorable “blaxploitation” flicks I have ever seen and it’s so refreshing to see something new – especially from a film over thirty years old now. It’s a solid looking film, of course very gritty, but between that – the flat out amazing soundtrack from James Brown and the all too great for a simple action film performances… I am just blown out of my socks every time I think hard about what makes these flicks so magical. Heh, and now that I have spoke so much of Hell Up in Harlem – I pretty much have to review that one too.