Friday, February 19, 2021


This review was written in 2014 for

Sometimes you really do come across a movie and think, "Where have you been all my life?" Watching Ossie Davis' 1970 blaxploitation picture Cotton Comes to Harlem last night, I couldn't believe I had waited all this time to see it. I missed the memo that it was such a fun blend of energy, politics, and genre subversion.

Based on a book by Chester Himes, this spin on pulpy police stories features two New York City detectives on the hunt for money stolen from a dubious charity. Smooth-talking Reverend Deek O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart, Coming to America [review]) collected $87K from Harlem residents promising them passage on a boat to take them back to Africa and away from the oppressive conditions of the American state. No sooner has the cash been gathered than armed robbers make off with it. Deek and his henchman chase the getaway van in their gold-plated armored car, and they in turn are pursued by Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Chambers, Watermelon Man) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques, The Green Berets), the police officers assigned to the Harlem beat.

Just about everything you need to know about Cotton Comes to Harlem is in these opening scenes. It's a mingling of life on the streets and black politics, with Black Panther stand-ins the Black Berets squaring off against police and taking exception to O'Malley's hokum even while everyday citizens cheer him on. There are bullish white officials hanging around, asserting their own agenda, and there are also lots of colorful characters, including a junk collector (Red Foxx), a pickpocket (Van Kirksey), and a street painter (Cleavon Little). Once the chase is underway, Davis, who is perhaps best known now as the actor who played Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing, throws all pretense out the window. He and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein) take in everything along the escape route, letting the cars go on their merry way while they stop to look at what's happening on the sidewalk. The digressions are generally humorous--an undertaker puts on his good hat and jacket to await the oncoming business, a catcaller nearly has his head blown off while admiring three lovely ladies--and meant to give a flavor of the neighborhood. Davis is both playing with and celebrating African American stereotypes, taking a certain ownership of them while poking the white gaze in its eye. This is, after all, a pursuit where the cops spin out after crashing into a watermelon cart. Their frustration here and throughout Cotton Comes to Harlem is both with the perception of their community and how often members of it fall into the trap of conforming to negative stereotypes. These are guys just trying to do a job, but everyone and everything manages to get in their way.

From there, Cotton Comes to Harlem has one major plotline--finding the money, which has been hidden inside a bale of cotton that went missing in the shootout--but Davis isn't afraid to go careening off in whatever direction strikes his fancy. Some of the action is predictable--a gunfight at the junkyard, for instance, follows certain expected standards--and others not so much. Davis' regular go-to for disrupting everything is O'Malley's spurned girlfriend, Iris (Judy Pace, Brian's Song). Neither a femme fatale nor a patsy, Iris is a self-determined agent of chaos. In one hilarious (and sexy) scene, she seduces a white cop in order to trick him into lettering her go; in another, she brains O'Malley's new mistress, and then nearly gets the Reverend locked up for it.

The Reverend himself is your typical snake-oil salesmen, but it's interesting that most of the resentment that comes his way is for missing an opportunity to be a true leader. Gravedigger and Coffin think he's scum not just because he preys on his own people, but he colludes with white crooks to do it. Though, this is also status quo: not only do the cops acknowledge that their hands are sometimes tied by their white bosses, so too does Harlem's leading crook (Maxwell Glanville) answer to an uptown mafia boss. Every choice that Davis and his co-writer Arnold Perl (Malcolm X) make is a political one.

Yet, Cotton Comes to Harlem is far from a message picture. Rather, it follows the grand B-movie tradition of nestling its more enlightened points within genre tropes, disguising the larger message with sex and violence. One could easily watch Cotton Comes to Harlem at face value and it's still a cracking good time. Weirdly enough, the anything-goes tone reminds me of anime, the way the storytelling flits from action to drama to comedy to scandal without ever really stopping to worry if the viewer is ready for the mood swing. It's the sort of film where you just have to strap yourself in and prepare yourself to accept whatever comes next. Because, geez, it's a blast getting where you're going, and so worth it once you realize where that is.

Sunday, February 14, 2021


This review written in 2013 for

Let's get this out of the way. Ain't Them Bodies Saints looks like a Terrence Malick film, and there is certainly an influence there. I only bring this up because everyone else does, even though it's like saying some contemporary author writes in a sparse style a la Raymond Carver who also himself writes like Ernest Hemingway. Of course, he does!

While writer/director David Lowery is certainly more akin to that contemporary talent thrice removed, this directorial effort transcends simple homage and becomes its own thing, fitting snuggly in a school of crime-flavored films told with a Southern drawl and a molasses pace. It's a school that star Casey Affleck seems to like a lot, as Ain't Them Bodies Saints could almost be a kind of link between two of his other movies, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [review] and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me [review]. Like that latter film, unfortunately, Ain't Them Bodies Saints never entirely finds its sweet spot, but that doesn't stop it from being worthwhile viewing.

The younger Affleck stars as Bob Muldoon. In the artful prologue to the movie, we see that Bob is kind of an old fashioned outlaw, perhaps a descendent of the aforementioned Jesse James, if not a more direct follower of Clyde Barrow. After a crime spree and a shootout with Texas troopers, Bob ends up in jail, covering for his sweetheart, Ruth (Rooney Mara, Side Effects [review]), who is the one who really shot the cop (Ben Foster, The Messenger [review]) and should have gone to prison. She's pregnant, however, and chivalry is not dead, so Bob falls on that sword, vowing to one day escape and get back to her and their child.

That day comes several years later and serves as the main section of Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Bob has escaped from prison and is trying to make his way back to his family. Meanwhile, the wolves are circling around Ruth. Some of them, like their former benefactor/father figure (Keith Carradine, Thieves Like Us [review]), merely wants to see Bob back behind bars with a minimum of fuss; others, like the wounded cop, have other outcomes in mind. He has fallen for Ruth, apparently as oblivious as everyone else to who really pulled the trigger those years ago.

The distance between prison and home is great, and the consequences even greater. As all of these characters circle one another, their dance absorbs others, particularly as Bob seeks help from friends and enemies come looking for revenge. The main engine of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, however, is the central quartet, all of whom have their own motivations. For the men, it all has something to do with Ruth; for Ruth, it's about protecting her daughter.

Performance-wise, everyone is very much at ease here. Ain't Them Bodies Saints breathes a rare, chilled air, and the tone is consistently quiet. There are very few instances where anyone raises their voice above a conversational volume. Ben Foster benefits the most from being restrained. I can't remember the last time he appeared on screen when he wasn't working some exaggerated tic or overdoing it in some manner. (It probably was The Messenger, actually.) Here he appears lonely and heartbroken--which is also Ain't Them Bodies Saints' standard mood. Everyone is suffering some disappointment, no one has what they originally envisioned and desired for themselves. They live, as the saying goes, lives of quiet desperation.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a well-made movie. Its tone is inviting and the clear, understated storytelling makes it easy to watch. The script provides plenty of space for the actors to draw out and work with their characters' inner lives. Lowery doesn't seem concerned about the showier aspects of writing. He doesn't go in for stylized or explanatory dialogue, there is no speechifying in Ain't Them Bodies Saints. The closest he gets to that is in the music, when Daniel Hart's score indulges in a stylistic divergence, such as the handclaps in one of the shootout scenes. Then again, if there is any place it might be acceptable to go a little off model, wouldn't that be when there's serious gunplay? The heightened rhythm mimics an accelerated heartbeat, fitting the mood and paying nicely against cinematographer Bradford Young's naturalistic approach to lighting.

Except given that Ain't Them Bodies Saints otherwise fails to fully engage, it makes such shifts all the more noticeable. There's an element here of too much control and a concern with perfection, and Lowery never really breaks from that. This makes for a movie that often feels like it's going through the motions, hitting its marks, and making sure everything is attuned just so. It lacks the emotional rawness that would give it the kind of depth that would make it truly special.