Tommy Gibbs, a young man raised in the urban streets of Harlem, has always wanted to be more than average. When during his childhood, a dirty cop breaks his leg. Tommy begins a long quest for revenge. To achieve this, he takes a job as a freelance assassin to gain the attention of the Mafia. When he successfully makes the hit, he becomes accepted as a gangster. As he becomes a major figure in the criminal society, he begins to earn more power and fame by initiating a gang war in Harlem.
Filmmaker Larry Cohen took elements from some of the top films in the classic gangster genre and made one of the most famous films in the blaxploitation genre. In doing so, he made a sure fire lead in former football player Fred Williamson, who gives his career defining performance as the titular “Black Caesar”, Tommy Gibbs. From the opening of the film, it can be seen as a character study of someone who wants to make it big and does whatever it takes despite the consequences.
The film is driven by the soundtrack by James Brown. Brown uses his soul and funky riffs to help describe Tommy’s rise as a gangster in Harlem. While there is the racial tension that defines the genre, Tommy not only deals with a gang war but also deals with political corruption as a motive of revenge for his maiming as a kid. The theme of political corruption goes from minor to major theme plot for the film’s sequel, Hell Up in Harlem.
Williamson has great support in the film. From Gloria Hendry as his love interest to the late great Julius Harris as his father, they help drive Williamson’s performance and they too return for the sequel. Speaking of the sequel, it almost didn’t happen. This all came about when Larry Cohen had shot an original ending of the film only to get bad rave in its initial screenings. Cohen clipped the original ending and released the film in 1973 with a new ending. However, when the film was released on VHS and DVD in 2001 by MGM, the original ending Cohen had shot is intact. Nevertheless, the theatrical release became a set-up for Hell Up in Harlem.
Fred Williamson truly made this film for what it is. The former football great truly brings out a worthy dramatic performance that could nearly rank up there with the likes of classic gangster film figures such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. If you are in the mood or want to be introduced to blaxploitation, look no further than Black Caesar.
WFG RATING: A
An American International Pictures production. Director: Larry Cohen. Producer: Larry Cohen. Writer: Larry Cohen. Cinematography: Fenton Hamilton. Editing: George Folsey Jr.
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Art Lund, D’Urville Martin, Julius W. Harris, Minnie Gentry, Philip Roye, William Wellman Jr., Val Avery, James Dixon.