Cotton Comes To Harlem

On June 22, 2017, USFCAM presented a free film screening of Cotton Comes to Harlem as part of its programming for Black Pulp! Noel Smith, USFCAM’s Curator of Latin American and Caribbean Art, provided a biographical sketch of Chester Himes, the author of the book on which the film was based, and Cheryl Rodriguez, Director of the USF Institute on Black Life, introduced and contextualized the film.

Chester Himes is among the most original of American writers. Literary critic and historian Henry Lewis Gates Jr. has called him “one of the towering figures of the black literary tradition. A Master craftsman.” While Walter Mosely, himself the creator of series of novels based on an African American detective, said he is “one of the most important American writers of the 20th century… A quirky American genius.”

Chester Himes was born in 1909 in Jefferson City, Missouri. A child of the middle class, his tumultuous childhood was framed by the cruelty of Jim Crow laws. A good looking and charming young man, a dropout from Ohio State university, he was in frequent trouble with the law and in 1928 was sentenced to 20-25 years in prison for armed robbery. He has said that in prison he grew up, and in prison he became a writer; he published several short stories before being released after 7 ½ years. A protégée of Langston Hughes, he continued to write and spent some time in Hollywood as a screenwriter at MGM. The persistent racism there drove him to emigrate to Paris, where he joined other expatriate Black American writers such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright. With his second wife Leslie he lived the rest of his life in Europe, and died in Moraira, southern Spain, in 1984 from Parkinson’s disease.

Himes’s works include a memoir about his time in prison, “Cast the first stone,” “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” about the experiences of a black employee in a racist defense plant in WWII, and “Lonely Crusade,” a fictional telling of the conflict among blacks, the labor movement and the Communist Party. His popularity in France led to the nine Harlem Cycle novels published by Gallimard’s Serie Noir in France. The novels feature two New York City cops, detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, and are set in Harlem in the 1950s and 60s. The Himes scholar Edward Margolies observed that “Coffin Ed and Grave Digger made their debuts at a critical period when civil rights and black-nationalist movements were under way; they were torn, almost from the start, between their desire to protect Harlem’s exploited citizenry and their feelings that the white power structure for whom they worked was the real enemy.”

While Himes’ novels gave him an expanded audience and financial security, it is really the cinema that made him famous. Three films have been made based on the characters of Coffin Ed and Grave Digger: Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972) and A Rage in Harlem (1991).

Noel Smith
Curator, Latin American and Caribbean Art
USF Contemporary Art Museum

The pulp world of super heroes, larger than life detectives, outrageously beautiful women, mystery and adventure exploded during the mid-20th century. Writers in this genre produced comics and fiction that would influence other forms of entertainment for decades to come. Pulp was escapist entertainment that appealed to readers from all walks of life. The focus of pulp was not high art but rather entertainment. However, because of race relations in America, the creators of Black pulp did politicize the genre by boldly asserting that there were Black characters who could do the same things that white characters did. In later decades, “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970s would bring a range of complex and controversial Black characters to the screen. In many ways, these films reflected an extension of the pulp genre.

“Cotton Comes to Harlem” is listed as one of the 50 greatest Blaxploitation films. The Blaxploitation film genre emerged in the 1970s as an immediate post-Civil Rights representation of Black people living and interpreting life on their own terms. Both Civil Rights and Black Power eras influenced a culture of pride in African Americans’ connections to the African continent but also pride in our unique positionality as Black Americans. In an effort to exorcise the shame we felt as former slaves and as people with dark skin and kinky hair, Black Power encouraged a celebration of the Black experience and influenced certain forms of dress, hairstyles and music. These are all reflected in films like “Cotton Comes to Harlem”. The Blaxploitation film genre exploited this new cultural freedom while also satirizing historic and pervasive stereotypes of Black people and Black communities.   The result was that viewers of these films experienced diverse characters, ideologies and lifestyles that are a part of every Black community.

I remember going to see some of these films in the 1970s and I recall the controversies surrounding them. Many African Americans felt that these films reflected the worst stereotypes of Black people and that these images could be used to justify the perpetuation of racism. Filmmakers responded although the films were very entertaining , there were also running commentaries on race relations embedded within them. However, like many other youth of my generation, I did not pay very much attention to the politics of the Blaxploitation genre at that time. As a young 20-something, fresh out of the oppressive Jim Crow era – I was just happy that I was free to go to an integrated movie theatre and see films with all-black casts. Also, it was quite thrilling to be able to view African Americans having fun on film and laughing at ourselves. That is one simple and basic idea that came across to Black audiences – the notion of Black people having control of film media in ways that we never had before. For example, in the 1960s there were a number of mainstream films that featured Sidney Poitier, a handsome Black actor who spoke in perfect Standard America English. Poitier was always highly intelligent, respectful and non-threatening. In most films, he was in situations in which he reflected white America’s notion of the model Black man. The overarching message of the films featuring Sidney Poitier was that if all Black people behaved as he did, perhaps many of our social problems would be solved. However, by the end of the 1960s, African Americans understood that the model of the civilized Black man was not going to solve our entrenched racial problems.

While a number of Blaxploitation films take place in Harlem or other predominantly Black urban settings, there are also examples of Blaxploitation films that have the U.S. south as the regional focus. While many Blaxploitation films are comedies, there are a number of diverse sub-genres within this genre, including the coming of age in Black America film, the western, martial arts, and horror.

While Blaxploitation films are an important cultural reference, the showing of “Cotton Comes to Harlem” is actually one important vehicle for thinking about the exhibition Black Pulp, co-curated by William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson and recently at CAM. Black Pulp does not focus on one specific genre but attempts to set up conversations between historic and contemporary representations of the Black experience in America. A poster of the film, “Cotton Comes To Harlem” is just one of many pieces that contribute to a very layered and scholarly exploration of the multiple meanings of the term “pulp”. There is also an amazing display of early publications of the NAACP and the Urban League, published in the early 20th century – both of which tell us that change is coming. This exhibition is grounded in an American history that we are often not required to learn, so we don’t often have a historical context that facilitates an understanding of the revolutionary roots of films like “Cotton Comes to Harlem”. This exhibition also offers an opportunity to think about the critical connections between narrative expression and visual art. In fact these forms are intimately connected – as we see in the covers of the early civil rights publications.

I think it is also important to note that there is no form of expression in this exhibition that does not represent resistance to oppression. And that is important because we can certainly use Black Pulp as a platform to examine where we have been as a society and where we need to be in order to fully realize our humanity as a multi-cultural world.

Cheryl R. Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Director, Institute on Black Life, Center for Africa and the Diaspora
Associate Professor of Africana Studies
School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies
University of South Florida

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