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Speaking of Book-to-Film Adaptations, Remastered ‘Cotton Comes To Harlem’ (Based on Chester Himes’ Novel) Comes To Blu-Ray

Speaking of Book-to-Film Adaptations, Remastered 'Cotton Comes To Harlem' (Based on Chester Himes' Novel) Comes To Blu-Ray

I know everyone talks about wanting to see Octavia Butler’s novels up on the big
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
the film).

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.

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OH MY, is this post a cautionary tale?!

" I don't want no Ni**er on this lot" ~ Jack Warner

Those are the words of Warner Brothers HNIC before he terminated Chester Himes' screenwriter career at his studio.

"Lots of black people aren't investing in acting careers [including writers] because they are unsure of making money because they are told no one wants to see black movies" ~ Artbizzy

And whatever happened to Eric Monte, the black writer behind All In The Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons and What's Happening?

Btw, after Chester Himes "successes", it would be more than 30 years until another black mystery writer, Walter Mosley and his Easy Rawlins and Mouse series hit the big screen. Has anyone seen Walter Mosley, lately? In fact, where have all the great black writers gone? More importantly, today, are their any new ones who are rich enough, or courageous enough, or some might say stupid enough to jump in that oven? Btw, if you didn't know, Chester Himes eventually settled in France with fellow expatriate writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

"I know, everyone talks about wanting to see Octavia Butlers novels up on the big screen but… " ~ Sergio M.

… but is that merely wishful thinking or days long gone bye-bye?


@SERGIO, dont overlook Chester Himes underrated late novel-PLAN B & his short stories whith blood,sweat & guts spilling out the pages;-)- he's one of my top 5 black writers;-)


I haven't read the books or seen any of the movies. However, by watching the clip above I have to agree with Sergio that Michael Ealy and Anthony Mackie are to soft. I also think that Eddie Murphy and Cedric The Entertainer are to old. I would go with a lesser known black actor like Michael Jai White or Omari Hardwick.

I am glad Mark & Darla and CareyCarey brought up who to direct it. If I had to choose one. I would consider five names that weren't considered: Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer, Training Day), F. Gary Gray (Law Abiding Citizen, The Italian Job), Allen and Albert Hughes a.k.a The Hughes Brothers (Menace To Society, Dead Presidents), John Singleton ( Abduction, Boyz n the Hood), Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails, directed episodes on numerous television shows like "Treme", "True Blood, and "Once Upon A Time." I would also choose Allen Hughes who directed the 2013 film "Broken City" as a solo director.

Douglas Gill

Sergio and Carey –

Standing by my selections which are based more on reading the source materials AND on what the media output was (network show, limited series, or theatrical release). Ealy and Mackie would easily carry a network series if Gravedigger and Coffin Ed were ‘reimagined’ in a contemporary setting as network shows then to be. There lack of weight is more a lack of opportunity in part selection.

Giancarlo is good at smouldering and Andre is good at verbal intimidation

A few years ago I would have picked Samuel L. and Denzel – great actors, but not who you envision when you read the books.


Very interested in this idea…Very. :-D

Douglas Gill

If I wanted to go with “older” actors or limited series I would pick: Giancarlo Esposito as Gravedigger and Andre Braugher as Coffin Ed. If I wanted “younger actors” or a network series I would go with: Michael Ealy as Gravedigger and Anthony Mackie as Coffin Ed. If I wanted straight-up “bad asses” or theatrical release I would pick – Michael Jai White as Gravedigger and Idris Elba as Coffin Ed.

Joe Leydon

Saw this one back in the day in my hometown of New Orleans, at the old Loews State Theatre. Still remember the song sung during the film: "When cotton comes to Harlem, we kick's cotton's ass." And Godfrey Cambridge's explaining "black" behavior to a white colleague: "My people. My people." And of course: How did you know they were white? "They run white." Speaking of movies that should be revisited: I recall Mario Van Peebles' "Watermelon Man" having flaws, but I also remember being impressed by Cambridge's performance. Final scene, depicting his character's radicalization, was a knockout.

Mark & Darla

One of the ingredient that makes a movie great to me is pacing, one of the ingredient that make a great director to me is his/her pacing skill that speck to me watching their movie. Ossie Davis movies “Cotton comes to Harlem” and “Black Girl’ speck to me in high volume, will never get tire of watching those two movies.

Ossie Davis was a great director.


"Problem is, who could play those roles today? I haven’t a clue."

Hold that thought. First, I have to say this was a great post. That paragraph on Fox News viewers worst nightmare was the comment of the month.

re: Who could play those roles. Let me throw something on the floor. Everyone remembers Harlem Nights, right? Well, the cast was filled with blasts from the past and current A-Listers. Well, what about a time called now? Now Eddie Murphy is the older actor and so is Cedric The Entertainer. They could certainly play the detectives. And I'm thinking the Bad Boys duo Will Smith and Martin Lawrence will fit as well. Other cast members… Pam Greer, Lupita Nyoungo, Loretta Devine, Danny Glover, Uzo Aduba (Orange is The New Black), Chadwick Boseman.

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