The Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart) has quickly become one of the most charismatic preachers in America, and is promoting his "back to Africa" movement where he is accepting tens of thousands of dollars of donations to help his fellow black Americans return to the Motherland. But is he what he seems to be? Detectives Coffin Ed (Raymond St. Jacques) and Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) have their doubts, and are keeping a close watch on the Reverend’s rallies, like today when he is whipping the crowd up into a frenzy of pious racial pride, a state of mind the two cops are sceptical about. Just what is this supposed man of the cloth getting out of this? They’re about to find out when $87,000 goes missing.
And you know it’s that amount because it's all the characters can talk about, repeating the sum in conversation over and over, as if relishing the taste of the words. Yes, love of money was the root of all evil here, as it had been in many a thriller before, but Cotton Comes to Harlem was different for a number of reasons. It was based on the novel by Chester Himes, one of the most important African American writers whose keen understanding of what made a pageturner coupled with a strong sympathy for his fellow blacks of the day provided a crossover appeal to all races, though he was perhaps most popular in France where he hobnobbed with the likes of Pablo Picasso, who wanted to turn his books into comic strips.
Himes knew of what he wrote, having been a jailed criminal in his younger, more misguided years, though if he hadn't been sentenced (for armed robbery) he might not have found the time to write and establish himself in that field. His work was a natural to adapt to the big screen of the nineteen-seventies where cinema was trying to be more progressive, and for that reason Cotton Comes to Harlem is often judged to be the first real Blaxploitation movie, though naturally it has some competition for that title. Certainly it brought the urban setting, gritty violence, sense of humour and dash of sex to the thriller genre that it was crying out for as censorship loosened, and the fact that African Americans were becoming higher profile didn't hurt.
Ever since Sidney Poitier from the fifties onwards, there had been a place for leading black actors in the mainstream, but for a long while it seemed it was only he and a handful of less famous others who were making that breakthrough. But here was something positive, albeit in a cynical, streetwise fashion, very well cast with St. Jacques and Cambridge offering a very convincing rapport as the smartest guys in the room and not above bending the rules to get their way. Sure, they were still cops and that could have made a certain section of the audience wary, but we never had the impression they were compromising their attitudes to bow down to whitey, if anything their white chief (John Anderson) was yet another character they could run rings around, which made the Reverend more of a challenge.
He has the weight of public opinion behind him, capitalising on racial tensions to generate his own profits, lining his own pockets with that back to Africa cash which he hides in the bale of cotton of the title. But wouldn't you know it, that bale gets stolen, leaving the rest of the film a mad chase after it, with a surprising, though humorous conclusion. You could see in actor turned director Ossie Davis's handling of this he was basically inventing the modern action buddy movie, and though the action itself may not be as plentiful as modern viewers may be used to, as the emphasis was on laconic humour and sly lampooning of society's mores and foibles, it remained significant. Judy Pace added glamour as the Reverend's moll who memorably gives a cop guarding her the slip in a very seventies way, and Red Foxx appeared in much the same role as his hit sitcom would offer him shortly after, but it was the two leads who set the tone. It may have been surpassed since, so is not quite as fresh as it was, but its trendsetting was not in doubt. Music by Galt McDermot.