Cotton Comes to Harlem

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Cotton Comes to Harlem
Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Robert McGinnis
Directed byOssie Davis
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn, Jr.
Written byOssie Davis
Arnold Perl
Based onCotton Comes to Harlem
by Chester Himes
StarringGodfrey Cambridge
Raymond St. Jacques
Calvin Lockhart
Music byGalt MacDermot
CinematographyGerald Hirschfeld
Edited byRobert Q. Lovett
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • May 26, 1970 (1970-05-26)
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million
Box office$5.2 million (rentals)[1]

Cotton Comes to Harlem is an neo-noir[2] action film co-written and directed in 1970 by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx.[3] The film is based on Chester Himes' novel of the same name.[4] The opening theme, "Ain't Now But It's Gonna Be" was written by Ossie Davis and performed by Melba Moore. It was followed two years later by the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue.


"Reverend" Deke O'Malley, a conman, is selling shares at a Harlem rally, for the purchase of a Back-to-Africa movement ship to be called The Black Beauty. During the rally, several masked gunmen jump out of a meat truck and steal $87,000 in donated cash from the back of an armored car. Two Harlem detectives, Gravedigger Jones and "Coffin" Ed Johnson chase the car, and a bale of cotton falls out of the vehicle, unremarked at the time. Uncle Budd, a scavenger, finds the bale of cotton and sells it for $25 to a junk dealer, but later buys it back for $30. There is a reward out for the $87,000, and Gravedigger and Coffin deduce that the money was probably hidden inside of the bale which had fallen out of the getaway vehicle during the chase. After accusing Reverend O’Malley of stealing the money and taking him captive, Detectives Jones and Johnson are able to blackmail Tom, a mob leader, to give them $87,000 - to be restored to the original donors - after discovering that Uncle Budd has run off with the stolen money and emigrated to Ghana, to live in retirement with his ill-gotten gains.


Background and sequel[edit]

The film Cotton Comes to Harlem is perhaps the most commercially successful film Hollywood produced in the 1970s starring a predominantly black cast.[6] Produced on a budget of $1.2 million,[7] it earned $5.2 million in theatrical rentals during its North American release,[1] making it the 22nd highest-grossing film of 1970.[8]
The film was one of the many black films that appeared in the 1970s and became an overnight hit. Davis parleyed both humor and drama together and got a film that worked. He also attracted a black audience, which helped make the film a cult classic. It inspired more black films during the '70s, including more action-packed numbers like Shaft and Super Fly.
Ossie Davis declined to direct a sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem due to strong artistic differences with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)[9] so the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue, loosely based on The Heat's On with much original material injected, ended up being directed by Mark Warren.

Screen debuts[edit]

Davis' film saw the debut of Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, and Cleavon Little. Lockhart appeared in numerous films and TV shows, sometimes playing tough guy roles. Judy Pace appeared in film and TV, appearing in the TV show The Young Lawyers and the film Frogs, and Cleavon Little made nightclub performances plus films afterwards: the most famous of which was as Black Bart in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. Another person who debuted was Redd Foxx, already well known as a veteran night club comic, leading him to be considered for the TV Show Sanford and Son. Cambridge also starred as a white man who turns black in the motion picture comedy Watermelon Man, which opened the same day as "Cotton Comes To Harlem." .[10]


Cotton Comes to Harlem is hailed by many as the first blaxploitation film, although others felt that it was basically an action comedy film that didn’t exploit blacks.[11] The film "explores the racism and its accompanying economic and social oppression inherent in American culture."[12] Detectives Grave Digger and Coffin Ed aren't necessarily fighting to protect the law but rather to protect their people from racist attitudes.

Cotton Comes to Harlem also depicts Black Power by depicting the power black people can utilize via methods such as self-determination. The detectives worked throughout the whole movie to prove that the black community was being taken advantage of and by the end of the film, they were much more respected by other white officers and were able to demand $87,000 from Calhoun.

Reverend O'Malley's purported ship, Black Beauty, was named after the "Black is beautiful" movement. The "Black is beautiful" movement was started to recognize themselves as a mighty race. In his own words, "I am the equal of any white man; I want you to feel the same way." Therefore, naming the ship to take all the black people in Harlem back to Africa was a form of empowering them as they embark upon the journey to embrace their African roots.

Lastly, the film provided a holistic perspective, by highlighting the struggles within the black community as well. Even during the car chase between the detectives and thieves, there were different video takes of stereotypes of black people in the streets. For example, there was a drug addict stumbling in the middle of the road, unfriendly black hotties strutting on the sidewalk in traditional African cloth and of course, a guy who was trying to holler at them. The car chase ends with the detectives running into a cart of watermelons.


The film’s inspirational opening theme song, “Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be,” was written by Ossie Davis and performed by Melba Moore, who at the time was also starring in the hit Broadway musical, Purlie![10]

Cotton Comes to Harlem employed many local people as extras and crew in the Harlem neighborhood where it was filmed, which helped to put a positive spotlight on Harlem, which at the time was ravaged with crime.[10]

Seeing that the film would be shot in Harlem featuring large crowd scenes, such as riots and rallies, John Shabazz and the Black Citizens Patrol volunteered to control the scenes with their experience in keeping out unwanted spectators and policing traffic. The Black Citizens Patrol’s purpose was to protect the black community from itself so they made themselves available at all times, even operating as an escort service.[13]


Critical response[edit]

Film crtitic Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote in his review: ""Balloons, fans, feathers—they're all out of style," says the racially aware exotic dancer preparing her act for Harlem's Apollo Theater. "They don't say a thing about my people!" [...] However, like the dancer's balloons, fans and feathers, the movie's stick-ups, shootouts, chases, murders and wisecracks say little about the Black Experience except that Ossie Davis, when given the opportunity, can turn out a ghetto comedy-melodrama that is almost as cold and witless as Gordon Douglas' Gold Coast fables, Tony Rome and Lady in Cement. It's strictly for people who don't care much about movies—or who persist in regarding movies as sociology."[14]


Cotton Comes to Harlem was released in theatres on May 26, 1970.[15] The film was released to DVD by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (acting as distributor for MGM Home Entertainment) January 9, 2001.[16] Cotton Comes to Harlem was released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (under license from MGM) on September 9, 2014.[17]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b "Big Rental Films of 1970", Variety, 6 January 1971, pg 11.
  2. ^ Spicer, Andrew (2010). Historical Dictionary of Film Noir. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. p. 427. ISBN 978-0-8108-5960-9.
  3. ^ "Cotton Comes to Harlem". Turner Classic Movies. Atlanta: Turner Broadcasting System (Time Warner). Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  4. ^ Himes, Chester (1966). Cotton comes to Harlem. New York City: Dell Publishing. ASIN B0007EYQFO.
  5. ^ Vaughter, Michelle (19 April 1997). "Obituaries". Daily Press. Retrieved 27 March 2015.
  6. ^ Company, Johnson Publishing (February 25, 1971). Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. JET. Retrieved May 4, 2016.
  7. ^ Box Office Information for Cotton Comes to Harlem. IMDb via Internet Archive. Retrieved May 3, 2014.
  8. ^ Top Grossing Films of 1970. Retrieved April 17, 2016.
  9. ^ Company, Johnson Publishing (February 3, 1972). Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. Retrieved April 16, 2016.
  10. ^ a b c McMillan, Stephen (11 May 2015). "Classic Soul Cinema: 'Cotton Comes to Harlem'". Soul Train.
  11. ^ "Classic Soul Cinema: 'Cotton Comes to Harlem'". Soul Train. 11 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Cotton Comes To Harlem Themes -". eNotes.
  13. ^ UA film 'cotton comes to harlem' in the ghetto. (1969, Nov 08). Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1966-1973)
  14. ^ Canby, Vincent (June 11, 1970). "Ossie Davis' 'Cotton Comes to Harlem'". The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times Company. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  15. ^ Hannan 2016, p. 412.
  16. ^ Cotton Comes to Harlem. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (DVD). Century City, Los Angeles: 21st Century Fox. January 9, 2001. Retrieved June 7, 2017.
  17. ^ Cotton Comes to Harlem. Kino Lorber (Blu-Ray). New York City: Kino International. September 9, 2014. Retrieved June 7, 2017.


External links[edit]