Raymond St. Jacques
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
Cotton Comes to Harlem / The Spook Who Sat By the Door April 30, 2019
J. A. Preston
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
like the rather silly Superfly (1972) and the ebullient Foxy Brown (1974), are far less taken with levity. This is especially true for the indignant Door, which is about a black nationalist (Lawrence Cook) who is hired by the CIA, gets acquainted with techniques of combat, and then resigns, soon using what he has learned to help organize a Chicago-based, freedom-fighting guerilla group. The film revolves around its exploits, as well as the cultural discussions between its members that regularly come to the fore.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which was directed by Ivan Dixon and based on a Sam Greenlee novel from 1969, was, for years, most famous for its backstory. The film, which was made independently, was picked up by United Artists. But when it came time for a theatrical release, the movie was pulled as a result of its progressive narrative and cardinal theme of black radicalism. (Who was responsible for the blacklisting, exactly, remains fuzzy.) It remained unavailable to the public — at least on a legal level — until 2004, when the actor Tim Reid unearthed a negative print of the feature and put it out on DVD.
Watching the film now, you can’t help but wonder what might have become of its legacy had it been widely available rather than unfairly made a sought-after rarity. This is an incensed and intelligent movie that sharply satirizes and accentuates the darkness of the political climate of the time. It’s not merely an artifact of the era, though: it’s also a smartly realized movie that hasn’t lost its potency in all its years of sitting untouched, waiting to be discovered again.
Cotton Comes to Harlem: B+
The Spook Who Sat By the Door: B+
here is little — if any at all — pulp flair, by contrast, in the provocatively titled The Spook Who Sat By the Door, a 1973 action drama that anomalously spins a narrative about black militancy in the 1970s. Like Cotton Comes to Harlem, it tends to be grouped in with the blaxploitation movement yet doesn't entirely feel in line with its filmic peers. Cotton and Door, which largely avoid the overwrought spectacle of movies
Though many of his books would be adapted for the screen — including If He Hollers Let Him Go, in 1968 — Himes’ arguably best-known novel (which came with a movie adaptation) is 1965’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, the antepenultimate chapter of his “Harlem Detective” series.
Beginning in 1957, with For Love of Imabelle, the saga chronicled the adventures of the black NYPD detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, whose experiences in a predominantly white institution were as provocatively examined as the mysteries they solved. It was through this serial that Himes, who lived in Europe from the 1950s until his death in 1984, accrued a large fanbase and critical praise. He was credited, in many circles, as a bonafide peer of the detective-novel writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, who practically defined the genre.
The adaptation of Cotton Comes to Harlem, in the same way the page-to-screen leaps of Hammett and Chandler novels were, was totemic. Released in 1970, around the boom of the blaxploitation film movement, it was unprecedented — the little-heard-of detective movie headed by black actors set in a black community. The Ed and Jones roles are, respectively, picked up by Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge, whose repartee is well-worn and convincing.
In this particular “Harlem Detective” story, Ed and Jones are investigating Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart), a noted conman. Our introduction to O’Malley, who is charismatic and flamboyant, is immediate. With Ed and Jones as our way in, we attend a Harlem-based rally the grifter is heading. Wearing a kempt white suit with pink underlings, which is covered by a Dracula-meets-the-disco cape, O’Malley sells himself to the public as a munificent reverend, in Harlem under the auspice of a fundraiser. He wants to purchase a Back-to-Africa movement ship tentatively called the Black Beauty, and use it to take his supporters to the continent. (He doesn’t specify where in it, exactly.) This is all patently false advertising. It’s clear that O’Malley is going to run off with the money accumulated, never to look back. But he’s a good salesman. He seems to believe his lies, which makes you sort of believe him too.
The rally is interrupted by a shootout. A bloc of masked, orange-suited men hop out of a van, mow down anyone standing in their way with machine guns, and steal the money O’Malley and his acolytes have so far gathered. A car chase ensues; oddly, a slab of cotton falls out of the getaway truck’s back as Ed and Jones drive on, which will prove to have significance later on. Whether O’Malley is in on the putative theft is just one of the questions to pop up in the movie.
Cotton Comes to Harlem follows the blueprint of typical detective entertainment — tropes, from a femme fatale character (Judy Pace, terrific) to the raw deal, are ever-present; the investigation is about as bursting with shady leads as we think it’d be. But, being that its main characters are black officers working under a white and unabashedly racist police department, and given that the story is set in 1970s Harlem, there is an additional emphasis on the issues which saturate the lives of both the characters and their surroundings, to sharp effect.
Ossie Davis, who co-wrote and directed the movie, retains the themes as originally fleshed out by Himes, from black power to social oppression, from institutionalized brutality (which our heroes often uphold) to economic disadvantage. The movie leans more heavily into the pulpier aspects of the source material: car chases and run-ins with caricatured bad guys are arguably far more pronounced than the thematic ideas. But its style, for the most part, stays true to Himes’ vision, and gets us a particularly inspired detective movie in the process.
hester Himes wrote his first novel in 1945. It was If He Hollers Let Him Go, a 203-page story about a black shipyard worker trying to get by in Los Angeles at the height of World War II. An uncompromising piece about the realities of racism and its inextricable connections to class and the working world, it got mixed reviews but would jump-start an oeuvre that, while varying in genre, would largely comprise crime fiction.