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Black Caesar

Fred Williamson is a star — even if his filmography is sub-par. Part of the renaissance of black-centric action films (or "blaxploitation," as it is now referred) that earned popularity in the '70s — and helped get the major studios out of debt — Williamson was one of the big players of the new urban genre. But his visibility took a downturn when blaxploitation did, even though he kept busy in the '80s directing his own movies, and working on the cheap, often for Italian producers. Recently he's had small roles in films like From Dusk Till Dawn, and he continues to make a living in direct-to-video projects, but to see him at his peak one should watch 1973's Black Caesar — it's his best starring role. As director Larry Cohen admits on the commentary track included on this MGM disc, the plot is a rehash of the 1930 Little Caesar with Edward G. Robinson, and the story will be familiar to anyone who's seen a few gangster movie (essentially the rise and fall of Williamson's character, Tommy Gibson). But it works, mostly because of Williamson's swagger, the funky beat of the James Brown soundtrack, and good location work in New York City. The film is admirable, even if its clichés aren't (Gibson's too-proud mother, for example), but writer/director Cohen throws in the occasional twist on the genre, and he deftly incorporates race politics into his tale. And as always with his films (Q, It's Alive), Cohen gets some good performances, here from players Gloria Hendry as Williamson's love interest, and Art Lund as the corrupt cop that Gibson has to forge an alliance with, even though they both hate each other. Improbably, Black Caesar spawned a cash-in sequel, even though the ending of this film had to be modified to create it. MGM's DVD release features a widescreen transfer (1.85:1) and the original monaural audio. Commentary by Cohen, trailer. Keep-case.

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