It is 1953 and a young shoeshine boy, Tommy Gibbs (Omer Jeffrey), is climbing his first rungs on the ladder to organised crime. When a gangster goes to him to have his shoes shined, Tommy takes his time so that a rival can approach, draw a gun and, as the boy hangs onto his leg to prevent him getting away, shoots the man dead in the street. Later, Tommy goes to hand over some bribery money to the racist cop McKinney (Art Lund), but he thinks the boy has stolen some of the cash and beats him up, putting him in hospital with a broken leg. Tommy will not forget this as he grows to be a man (Fred Williamson) who decides to help himself to a piece of the gangster action when he carries out a hit for the Mafia. But has he sold his soul for entry into this dangerous world?
By 1973, when Black Caesar was made, the blaxploitation genre was in full swing, and this didn't go unnoticed by cult writer, director and producer Larry Cohen, who offered up his version of the 1930s classic Little Caesar with the black equivalent of Edward G. Robinson (um, sort of), that's Fred Williamson, in the title role. Also not to go unnoticed was the success of The Godfather, so the opening half hour of this is not unlike a low budget, seventies-set version of that with all the intrigue, violence and backstabbing that implies. However, it doesn't reach the heights of its influences, partly because it doesn't have the money to throw around and partly because it veers too close to a reheating of old clichés with African American actors playing them out.
Despite having the quality of old wine poured into new bottles, there are enough flourishes to keep things interesting, even if initially it seems as though the plot is to be bogged down in financial corruption rather than machine gunning baddies. Tommy builds up a gang of trusted allies around him to take on not only the Mafia, but the police as well - McKinney is now a powerful and crooked figure in the force and it's interesting the way that the cops are portrayed as yet another gang for Tommy to contend with. As all this goes on, Tommy romances Helen (Gloria Hendry) who becomes his wife, but he's so wrapped up in his power games that he fails to notice that for her, his violent ways are a big turn off and she is being turned on by Tommy's quieter best friend Joe (Philip Roye) instead.
Tommy's biggest flaw, or so the film would have us believe, is that he really wants the trappings of the rich white life rather than the successful black one, but this is hard to accept, particularly with an actor with the confidence of Williamson as the lead character. He doesn't seem to be the type of man who has ever had any misgivings about his race, and his charisma would indicate that he would command respect whatever colour he was. That drawback aside, Cohen has included many notable and individual scenes, such as Tommy dropping the ear of the man he's just killed into the pasta of a Mafia boss, or the terrific action sequence on a budget where our anti-hero tries manfully to avoid a murder attempt, leading to an exciting chase through the New York streets. Still there are those hackneyed examples of storytelling to drag it down, with Tommy's tearful mother fretting over her son an obvious attempt to tug the heartstrings, so it's fortunate Cohen and Williamson keep up the momentum. Not a classic like those it emulates, then, but full of interest nonetheless. Music by another godfather, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Talented American writer/director who often combines exploitation subject matter with philosophical/social concepts. Began working in TV in the 1960s, where he created popular sci-fi series The Invaders, before directing his first film, Bone (aka Dial Rat), in 1972. A pair of blaxploitation thrillers - Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem - followed, while 1974's horror favourite It's Alive! was a commercial hit that led to two sequels.