Black Caesar is a 1973 blaxploitation film directed by Larry Cohen, starring former NFL linebacker Fred Williamson as a small-time mobster who builds his way up as the kingpin of a criminal empire in New York City.
Tommy Gibbs (Williamson) shines shoes on the streets of Harlem, and begins moonlighting as a mob runner to make ends meet. After one of his jobs, Tommy is severly beaten and crippled by a racist police captain, and sent to prison for assault. Tommy uses his stay to learn about the criminal underworld in New York, and promptly sets out to usurp control by leveraging a section of Harlem from The Mafia. Gibbs then spends the next several years building up an extensive criminal empire and becoming a local hero in the process. Eventually, however, Gibbs backstabs his Mafia contacts and alienates his friends and family, leading to an all-out war between his empire and the reigning kingpins of the city. At the end of the film, Tommy is shot in broad daylight by a Mafia thug, and makes his way back to his old homestead in the Harlem slums, whereupon he is attacked and presumably killed by a gang of local boys, completing his fall from grace...
...however, the wild popularity of the original film resulted in a sequel, Hell Up In Harlem, being filmed and released the same year. Rewriting the ending of the first film, Harlem replays events from a slightly different perspective. Tommy is rescued and brought to a hospital by his remaining loyal allies after his beating at the abandoned apartment complex. Incapacitated (but still holding onto a key piece of evidence that implicates the Mafia heads in New York), Tommy transfers control of his empire to his father, who attempts to negotiate for his son's safety with the evil New York District Attorney Diangelo. After Diangelo's thugs try to kill him, Mr. Gibbs takes on the role of "Big Papa" while his son recuperates in Los Angeles. When Big Papa and Tommy's ex-girlfriend (and mother of his children) Helen are murdered, he must come back to reclaim his empire (and his son, who was born in the previous film) and kill his turncoat lieutenant, Zach, and Diangelo.
Black Caesar was a hit with audiences when it was released in 1973, and was lauded for its gritty portrayal of the city and morally grey protagonist. The film also jumpstarted lead actor Fred Williamson's career, which resulted in his having to shoot Harlem on weekends while filming another movie during weekdays. The original film also benefitted from having James Brown compose the hit soundtrack. In an infamous case, Brown wrote the soundtrack for Harlem entirely on spec (without pay), but it was rejected by American International Pictures. Brown later released his rejected soundtrack as The Payback, which proved to be a critical and commercial hit.
Not to be confused with "The Black Caesar".
The films contain examples of:
- Anyone Can Die: Mr. Gibbs, Helen and Tommy's childhood friend Rufus in Harlem.
- Badass Longcoat: Big Papa's fur coat.
- Big Applesauce: The original plays it straight, while the sequel subverts this by being set in Los Angeles for part of the film.
- Big Damn Heroes: In the sequel, Diangelo takes Tommy's father up to the roof of a skyscraper and gloats at him before leaving his underlings to finish the job. Mr. Gibbs fights back and defeats both henchman before coming face-to-face with another man who has a gun trained on him. Mr. Gibbs looks resigned to death...and then Tommy's lieutenant Zach blows the henchman away from offscreen while a funky musical cue plays.
- Blackface: Used deliberately in Caesar: Tommy smears shoe polish on the face of the policeman who crippled him when he was younger, and forces him to sing a song before beating him to death with a shoe-shine box.
- Brief Accent Imitation: During his first meeting with Cardoza (a Mafia leader), Tommy orders a bowl of pasta using a perfect Sicilian accent.
- Chase Fight: Tommy and Zach in the sequel, as they follow each other on separate airplanes bound from LAX to Laguardia (punctuated with a fight between Tommy and a henchman aboard a plane) and then getting into a fight throughout the terminal.
- Dirty Cop
- Downer Ending: The original film ends with Tommy severely injured (and presumably dead) after he's beaten by a gang of kids outside his old home. This was later retconned in the sequel to ensure that Tommy survived.
- Ear Ache: Tommy kills a Mafia informant and cuts off his ear, then presents it to one of the family heads at a restaurant.
- Gambit Roulette: Tommy's plan in the first film hinges on many different factors, including his knowledge of the criminal underworld, his ability to score a meeting with the local Mafia heads, and a significant amount of patience and planning. Naturally, it all goes off without a hitch.
- Gory Discretion Shot: The ear-cutting scene.
- Improvised Weapon: A beach umbrella in the sequel.
- Hollywood Healing: In the sequel, Hell Up In Harlem, Tommy is wheeled into a hospital room, where a doctor is ordered to remove the bullet lodged in his stomach (when Tommy was shot in the previous film) at gunpoint. The operation consists of Tommy mildly wincing while the doctor works on him, and he's no worse the wear (he can still think clearly and speak to his forces) while being wheeled out.
- Tommy died in the first movie, but when the film was initially released, this ending was cut out of the film by the studio, thus making the sequel possible. When the movie was released on video, they restored Cohen's intended ending. As a result, Tommy's appearance in Hell Up In Harlem doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
- Hollywood Heart Attack: Mr. Gibbs in Harlem, who overexerts himself during a struggle and clutches his chest briefly before falling down dead.
- Hospital Gurney Scene: Played with in the sequel - Tommy is wheeled into and out of the hospital by his crew while lying on a gurney.
- Information Broker: Tommy is this at the start of the original film.
- Just Between You and Me: The final confrontation between Tommy and Diangelo in the sequel.
- Lonely at the Top: By the end of Caesar, Tommy has alienated everyone who was ever close to him, and winds up bleeding out in a ruined apartment complex.
- Never Trust a Trailer: Despite the title, there really isn't any "Hell up in Harlem". The first half of the film mostly revolves around Tommy recuperating in Los Angeles while his father, a peripheral character in the first movie, becomes a main character in his own right (largely by taking control without much bloodshed). More than half of the action scenes take place outside New York.
- Oh, Crap!: In the sequel, the Mafia leaders on the Caribbean island once they realize that Tommy and his gang of assault troops (and several of the maids who were apparently trusted staff members) are massacring everyone on the island.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Tommy's father becomes known as "Big Papa", who rules the Harlem crime scene with an iron fist.
- Pixellation: Occurs unintentionally during one scene in Harlem. As Tommy climbs up the ladder onto a billboard to assassinate a target, the camera zooms in from a very far range (several blocks down a street) into him as he climbs. As the camera comes in, it becomes notably pixellated, an effect that is further exaggerated when seen on high-definition video.
- Pursued Protagonist: The opening of Harlem.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The ending of Harlem, as Tommy faces off against his turncoat lieutenant, the District Attorney and their associated henchmen.
- Shout-Out: In Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn" from Fear of a Black Planet, which is a Take That! towards racist Hollywood movies, Big Daddy Kane is heard saying "Yo, I've got Black Caesar back at the crib", indicating that Larry Cohen's independent film starring Fred Williamson (considered a classic of the Blaxploitation genre) is a more dignified portrayal of black characters, as it doesn't feature its black cast being denigrated to butlers, slaves or "jigaboos".
- Time-Compression Montage: Over James Brown's "The Boss" in Caesar, as Tommy takes control of various criminal elements.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: In the opening of Harlem, both Tommy and the henchman who shoots him commit serious offenses in broad daylight. The opening sequence ends with Tommy sneaking up behind the henchman - smack-dab in the middle of Times Square - and strangling him to death as people walk by without reacting.
- We Have to Get the Bullet Out!: Seen in Harlem, as Tommy's henchmen transfer him to a nearby hospital and, holding a doctor hostage, force him to remove the bullets from Tommy's abdomen (while the latter is still conscious, no less).
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Tommy's daughter, who was brought to the Gibbs household by Big Papa. Tommy disappears with his son at the end of Harlem, and never mentions her again.