Cinematic Cliffs Notes - Black Caesar

Welcome once again to Cinematic Cliffs Notes, the series which attempts to utilise my film degree to the fullest by telling you all about films you might never have seen before! This week, we're looking at Black Caesar. You might know Black Caesar in a pretty peripheral way, in that you might know this song.

In fact, just leave that playing while you read. James Brown did the entire soundtrack for the movie, but Black Caesar is much more than that. It's one of the finest Blaxploitation films ever made, but it's also far more than just an action blockbuster brimming with pimps and... pimpettes? Were there any female pimps? We can look into that later.

Blaxploitation gets slanted on a great deal, which is a damnable shame, because it has so much to offer. Genre films, I'm firmly convinced, are where it's at, 'it' being 'cinematic goodness'. After several fairly grotty overseas skirmishes, Hollywood began making grittier, far less optimistic action outtings. Morally, they mixed black and white together and made grey appealing; the public, exhausted and disappointed with what war led to were more interested in films that explored the negatives as well as the positives of violence. 

And then, at around the same time that Regan stepped into office and Reganomics kicked into gear, Hollywood began to wrestle back control of action as a medium. Huge, assertive, unapologetic and fundamentally masculine heroes clutching their fundamentally masculine guns (the Dirty Harry, Death Wish and Rambo franchises leap to mind) began to appear. These heroes, however, were typically wealthy and white, or at least were favoured by the wealthy and the white. This is where Blaxploitation gained momentum: as a much needed counterweight to the white action surge.

Heroes like Shaft, Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, Coffy and Super Fly might have become comedic bylines for the perceived hyperbolic cinematic clumsiness, but they meant a lot to a fairly marginalised group. And like every other genre, Blaxploitation became a breeding ground for new talent. Black Caesar has all the genre specific trappings that makes Blaxploitation so innately appealing - big urban sprawls, social commentary, a killer soundtrack and a relentless vilification of 'the man' - but it also functions as a genuinely wry examination of obsession, redemption and failure. It's also a hell of a revenge flick.

Fred Williamson, nicknamed The Hammer, plays Tommy Gibbs. Williamson was a professional football player and a certified martial artists, and he brings an insane amount of charisma to the morally muddy antihero of Black Caeser. Essentially, Tommy Gibbs is a young delinquent harangued throughout his entire life by the same frightening white racist police officer. Gibbs also spends the film climbing the ladder of organised crime, whilst also trying to outrun a past of abuse and mistreatment. It's hard not to like Gibbs, because he genuinely is trying to almost physically pummel his way through his issues without every truly addressing them. This, as you can probably imagine, is an insane and compelling way to paint a picture of a bad guy.

The film is also edited and shot like an absolute dream. It's hard not to fall in love with basically every sequence, especially the final ten minutes, which might rank as the most cathartic closing stretch of any film from the Blaxploitation era. It also serves as an excellent introduction to the genre for the uninitiated, in that it tries to take a subtler approach to character when it can, erring on the side of realism when possible. 

It's also unique in that it's more a gangster film than anything else. In many ways it's more Scarface than Super Fly, preferring to cow its inhabitants with the weight of their own hubris than let them burst out of the ghetto like mink-ensconced phoenixes. But it's still a fundamentally pure blaxploitation experience, and if it leads you to the less accessible recesses of this unbelievably rich genre, well. That's a nice bonus, too.


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