Writer/director Larry Cohen became a cult icon the hard way. Which is by making genre films that are consistently better and certainly more original than those put out by almost any other exploitation filmmaker. Rent a Cohen film, whether its Q, or Its Alive or Maniac Cop, and youre bound to discover one of those pleasant surprises hid amongst the copious junk sitting on the shelves of your local video store.
Black Caesar is a Blaxploitation update of the classic Warner Brothers gangster films of the 30s. (Most obviously, the title is a riff on Little Caesar.) Like those movies, this one is rather episodic in nature. We first meet the title character as a young teen. Apparently working as a shoe shine, we quickly see that hes actually setting up a street killing. Soon afterward hes savagely beaten by an evil racist street cop and sent to prison. Before going in he states his intention of learning the trade from professionals, as it were, before he returns to the streets.
Eight years later hes back, now played by the extremely suave Fred Williamson. Williamson is absolutely terrific here, in what is probably his best movie. Soon hes the first black hood working for the Mob, which he subsequently betrays. In quick fashion he becomes the neighborhood crime boss, but learns the old lesson about what his money and power cant buy.
The film is more interested in the machinations of how Williamson seizes power than it is in violence, although theres certainly plenty of that. Meanwhile, Cohen is, for a white guy especially, fearless in going for the throat regarding racial matters. You cant imagine this film being made today, thats for sure.
MGM solidly delivers another smashing transfer. The film looks great, and the clean, mono sound ably provides for an appreciation of James Browns musical score.
Theres the seemingly obligatory trailer, which as usual youd be well advised not to watch until after youve seen the film.
The discs big gun, though, is a marvelous commentary track by Larry Cohen. This is one of the most educational lectures on low-budget filmmaking Ive heard. The number of scenes shot in or outside Cohens house, for instance, proves rather substantial. Moreover, when we see Williamson toss some fur coats out of a high apartment window, find out they belonged to Cohens mom! Cohen has a good memory and a natural way with an entertaining anecdote. Theres the occasional bald spot in his remarks, but nothing too bad.
Considering the low recommended price of only fifteen bucks, this DVD is a definite bargain buy for those who like gritty urban exploitation.
Ken Begg, 5/30/2001