Reel Gems | Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970)


In honor of Black History Month, we will take a look back at significant, rarely-seen Black films that we think deserve to be re-introduced to contemporary audiences. Today’s film is the 1970 action film, Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Cotton Comes to Harlem was co-written and directed in 1970 by Ossie Davis and starred Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx: it is based on Chester Himes’ novel of the same name. The opening theme, “Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be” was written by Ossie Davis and performed by Melba Moore.

A commercial hit, Cotton Comes to Harlem was produced on a budget of $1.2 million and earned $5.2 million in theatrical rentals during its North American release, making it the 20th highest-grossing film of 1970.

The film was one of the many black films that appeared in the 1970s and became an overnight hit. Davis parleyed both humor and drama together and got a film that worked: he also attracted a black audience, which helped make the film a cult classic over the years. It inspired more black films during the ’70s, including more action-packed numbers like Shaft and Super Fly. The film inspired the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue, based on original material instead of Chester Himes’ works.

Davis’ film saw four people debut in the film: Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, Cleavon Little, and Redd Foxx. Lockhart appeared in numerous films and TV shows, sometimes playing tough guy roles. Judy Pace appeared in film and TV, appearing in the TV show The Young Lawyers and the film Frogs, and Little made nightclub performances plus films afterward; the most famous role he played was as Bart in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. Foxx proved that even a veteran night club star up in age can do movies as well, leading him to be considered for the TV Show Sanford and Son.

In addition to acting, Davis, along with Melvin Van Peebles, and Gordon Parks was one of the notable African-American directors of his generation: he directed movies like Gordon’s War and Black Girl.

Along with Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, Davis was one of a handful of African American actors able to find commercial success while avoiding stereotypical roles before 1970, which also included a significant role in the 1965 movie The Hill alongside Sean Connery plus roles in The Cardinal and The Scalphunters. However, Davis never had the tremendous commercial or critical success that Cosby and Poitier enjoyed. As a playwright, Davis wrote Paul Robeson: All-American, which is frequently performed in theatre programs for young audiences.

Check out the trailer below: