Black Caesar

Commentator: Larry Cohen (director/screenwriter)

Perfect. Or near perfect at least. Cohen is half raconteur, half hoary storyteller, all relaxed energy — there’s something truly entertaining about somebody who has clear pride in his work but at the same time makes no pretense about trying to justify his work for the ages. There are a few too many examples of that and I’ll yet get to those, I’m sure, but here Cohen — somebody who the classic definition of a journeyman writer/director, trying whatever works, still writing more than directing these days — reflects on what turned out to be his directorial breakthrough with the air of somebody who just wants to bend your ear rather than let you know just how great and accurate he was. If there’s a running emotion, it’s honest pleasure and satisfaction with a hint of self-amused surprise.

It’s not only that he looks at what he admits was a blaxploitation effort — originally conceived for Sammy Davis Jr, it turns out! — with a frank and honest eye about Hollywood perceptions and biases and sometimes his own assumptions as well. Sometimes it’s truly fascinating, such as his last minute decision to alter the ending of the film — restored here, showing Fred Williamson’s title character getting killed almost like a dog by some local Harlem toughs — after many African American viewers specifically objected to the idea that such a death could occur. Then there’s his many observations on filming on the cheap but good — caught somewhere between a ‘golden age’ of exploitative filming on the run and the indie boom of later decades, he’s a blend of both, knowing his art while well aware of the bottom line. He notes family friends, talks about filming in not only his own house but his mother’s apartment, talks over simple but effective tricks to suggest larger spaces like nightclubs all while working in his own living room. A fine, affable quote: “I like the security of shooting in your own house…it just makes for a nice simple day!”

But then there’s all the trivia — noted make-up/sfx artist Rick Baker? A Cohen veteran, besides the gore here he even went to the trouble of creating a severed ear. The snazzy suits Williamson wears throughout the film? Bought by the actor himself at cheap off the rack places but, as Cohen reports Williamson saying, “Cohen, EVERYTHING looks good on me!” Williamson’s shadowing bodyguards and heavies were actual gangsters in Harlem who Cohen recruited on the spur of the moment not merely to provide a flavor of authenticity but because they could provide protection for location shots. James Brown’s soundtrack? Stevie Wonder was actually approached/considered first — Cohen reported all Wonder was interested with regards to himself was his zodiac sign — before a chance to work with Brown came along. Turns out Brown wasn’t as strict as Cohen would hope in terms of creating music to match the editing of the film but followed his own muse, leaving Cohen to figure out how to edit everything together. A fave bit — where he tells you how in the one scene where Williamson’s men attack the Mafia gathering that it’s not only his house but that, due to a banquet table being shot up, that they were picking turkey out of the lawn for months. Another — when Cohen specifically describes an error involving a trailing sound wire as Williamson walks away from a cemetery, it builds up to the scene itself…turns out either someone changed the frame or edited it out, but turns out the wire error isn’t there anymore. Cohen’s as surprised as anyone else, laughs and says “Forget I said anything!” Now that’s fun.