I know everyone talks about wanting to see Octavia Butler’s novels up on the big
screen but, speaking for myself, the
writer whose works I would love to see most on the big screen is Chester Himes. And by that, I mean his
series of detective novels with his two immortal characters – the NYPD detective
team of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.
Those novels, “The
Real Cool Killers,” “The Heats On,” “The Crazy Kill,” “All Shot Up,” “The Big Gold dream” and “A Rage in Harlem” are incredibly exciting, funny, visceral,
fast paced thrillers, and Himes had an extraordinary visual sense and style to
his works. They seem ready made for films, as if he had the movie of the novel
in his head as he was writing them. Whole scenes can be lifted off the pages of
his books to the screen with little effort.
For example, I think of the opening of his 1959 book “The
Real Cool Killers,” which literally begins with a white guy running for his life
down Harlem streets, with seemingly hundreds of black people after him (like, the absolute worst nightmare of every Fox News viewer come to
life). Can’t you just see that on the screen already?
A few of his novels have made it to the movies, such
as the 1968 film version of his dramatic
novel “If He Hollers Let him Go” with Raymond St. Jacques, though, unfortunately,
it bore little resemblance to the actual novel. But there’s also Bill Duke’s 1991 highly enjoyable “A Rage in Harlem,” in which Coffin Ed and Grave Digger are supporting characters in the film, and “The Heat’s On.” which I’ll get into
But most who’ve read Himes, and have seen the film
agrees that, perhaps the 1970 United
Artists film version of his 1965 book “Cotton
Come to Harlem” is the one that
most closely captures the spirit and tone of Himes’ novels.
Though the film plays up substantially the comedy aspects
of the book, the film is rollicking good fun. Breathlessly paced, violent and
at times cleverly sending up established stereotypes, the film has enough
car chases, shootouts and crazy action for two movies (I still vividly remember
my father taking me to see it when it came out, and laughing his head off during
Co-written and directed by the legendary Ossie Davis, in his feature film
directing debut, and starring Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed, as well as the great groundbreaking
comedian Godfrey Cambridge (to whom
practically every major black major comedian of the last 50 years owes a
serious debt to), Calvin Lockhart, Redd
Foxx and Judy Pace, the film tells of the frenzy that ensues when
a team of white robbers steal $87,000 from a fraudulent cob man preacher (Lockhart)
and hide it in a bale of Mississippi cotton.
Suddenly, before they can blink their eyes, the two
detectives find themselves up to their necks in madness, chaos and shootouts when
everybody and their grandmother turns Harlem upside down, trying to find that bale of cotton.
This is the film that really set off the whole Blaxploitation
era of the 70’s, a year before “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” came out – films that are usually given the credit.
Cotton was a box office hit and, for example, in Chicago alone, it played in
one downtown theater for over six months. In fact the theater illegally changed
the films’ rating from R to PG just to get more people to see it.
The film was so successful that it spawned a sequel from Warner Bros in 1972, “Come Back Charleston Blue” (not
directed by Ossie Davis), which was the
film version of Himes’ novel “The Heat’s On.”
Though it was a disappointment, compared to “Cotton,” it
definitely does have its moments of Himes’ inspired wackiness, including an insane, over-the-top shootout
in a cemetery, and a nun’s habit-wearing transvestite killer.
Though Cotton has been available for years on an old non-anamorphic
MGM/Fox DVD, made from a sub-par print, the great news is that, Kino Lorber, in their weekly ever-increasing
list of upcoming titles for their new Kino Studio Classics series (on which they
are releasing older UA titles from the 50’s to the 70’s), will be releasing a
remastered, anamorphic blu-ray DVD of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” on Sept 9th
Though sadly all the major principals – Davis, Cambridge,
St. Jacques, Lockhart and Himes – are long gone, hopefully there will be
commentaries and some other extra features on the DVD. However none have been
announced as yet.
And there still are another 4 Coffin Ed and Grave Digger
Jones books ready to be filmed. Problem is, who could play those roles today? I haven’t
a clue. Sign of the times.