“Did you know a man’s beard keeps right on growing, even after he’s dead?”
Larry Cohen applies his weirdo wit to the blaxploitation picture and comes away with something far more tragic and complex than I was expecting.
It starts with an act of racially motivated violence against a young Tommy Gibbs by a cop. Thrown down the stairs, beaten to hell, slurs slung, Gibbs is left within an inch of his life. Cut to years later, and Gibbs, now played with significant jaw by Fred Williamson, has put himself on the path to become the head of the NYC crime life. He fights the police, he destroys the Italian mob, he brings his harlem gang to the top. At first, we wonder if Gibbs has created his identity out of that moment from his childhood: that moment of racial injustice.
But Cohen and Williamson don’t allow us such an easy answer. They show Gibbs not as a symbol of righteous vengeance, but instead something much more complicated. We see him being cruel and sadistic. We see him harm his friends. We see him rape his wife. We see him re-create his own childhood act of violence on a friend.
And now Cohen forces us to wonder again: what if Gibbs didn’t create his identity out of a moment of injustice? What if he took his trauma and remembered it as an act of primeval force?
What if his trauma has manifested itself as the very principle of violence upon his soul?
That’s where Cohen is able to impart true power, true tragedy. This is a story of a man forged out of hell, and his inability to see his own inherent vice. It earns the Shakespearean namesake of its title. It damn near ripped my heart out, managing to create sympathy in a truly despicable character.
On top of that, Black Caesar is wildly entertaining. The set-pieces here are destructive and thrilling – a late game taxi chase is especially inventive and crazy. And its ending is a perfect pay off. It’s a sloppy explosion of revenge and pain, the perfect encapsulation of the complexity of this amazing film.