Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1970. Formosa Productions. Screenplay by Arnold Perl, Ossie Davis, based on the novel by Chester Himes. Cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn Jr.. Music by Galt MacDermot. Production Design by Emanuel Gerard. Costume Design by Anna Hill Johnstone. Film Editing by Robert Q. Lovett.
For many, this is considered the first blaxploitation film, and whether you agree, or attribute the popularity of the genre to Shaft, there’s no denying the pleasure to be gleaned from watching this exciting and fun detective story. It begins when two Harlem detectives (Godfrey Cambridge, who is outstanding, and Raymond St. Jacques) are investigating a very beloved “Back to Africa” preacher (Calvin Lockhart) who has a strong hold over his followers. The cops think he’s crooked and get suspicious when masked robbers show up at one of his public gatherings and take off with almost a hundred thousand dollars in donation money. The loot is hidden in a bale of cotton that has now gone missing in Harlem and which, the cleverly winking plot tells us, couldn’t possibly find a place to hide in the concrete jungle; our heroes have to track it down while figuring out if they were right about Lockhart despite his popular support. The witnesses they investigate include Lockhart’s girlfriend (Judy Pace), who has a hilarious sequence with the well-meaning but intellectually dim cop (Dick Sabol) assigned to guard her, Redd Foxx as a scavenger who sells the cotton to a junk dealer and further complicates its location, and a debut film performance by Cleavon Little as a junkie with vital information. The plot is relentless as it moves towards the finale, while the colourful cinematography turns the urban blight of seventies Manhattan into a collection of gorgeous locales with exciting hidden secrets everywhere (the best of them the lair hidden under a preacher’s pulpit). Terrific acting, stunt work and action sequences pop off the screen under the assured hand of actor Ossie Davis, here making his directorial debut.