Black Caesar – the blaxploitation era’s response to The Godfather, as well as an heir to the likes of ’30s gangster pictures The Public Enemy and Little Caesar – is bookended by two savage beatings, both endured by the movie’s title antihero. “Paid the cost to be the boss,” declares James Brown on the soundtrack, and Black Caesar functions as an itemized bill.
Even as a shoeshine boy growing up in 1950s Harlem, Tommy Gibbs (Omer Jeffrey) shows ruthless ambition. He’s more than willing to be an accomplice in mob hits, allowing him to worm his way into the mafia business. A brutal, racially driven beating at the hands of a corrupt cop (Art Lund), however, gives that ambition a vindictive undercurrent: from that point on, it’s not criminal assimilation Tommy is after, but total dominance.
And so Black Caesar charts Tommy’s rise to power, a journey punctuated by graphic pulp violence and seething hatred. Each brutal act has racial implications. Sometimes these are explicit – as when Tommy smears shoeshine grease on a victim’s face and forces him to perform a minstrel act – and sometimes they’re more subtle. When Tommy’s hoods assault a Mafia estate and gun down about 20 men, notice how the cliched Italian guitar on the soundtrack gradually gives way to ’70s soul.
What’s interesting about Black Caesar, directed by Larry Cohen, is that the violence isn’t softened by a sense of self-righteousness. Tommy (played as an adult by former NFL star Fred Williamson) is mostly depicted as a vile, unapologetic figure – smart, tough and resourceful, yes, but also willing to kill his father and guilty of raping his girlfriend. One of the more astonishing scenes takes place after Tommy has been shot and seeks help from the sleazy local pastor (D’Urville Martin) whose church has been serving as a money-laundering front. Faced with the reality of this bloody business, the pastor falls to his knees and genuinely prays for Tommy’s healing and forgiveness. Tommy just wanted a place to hide, so he slaps the pastor in the face and leaves.
Like Super Fly, an even better blaxploitation entry, Black Caesar ultimately understands the criminal lifestyle as a trap for the black community. Even at the top of his game – even when he’s what James Brown calls “a bad mutha” – Tommy is still caught in a cycle of oppression, violence and death.