Cotton Comes to Harlem (novel & film)

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) is the eighth of ten “Harlem Domestic” detective novels that Himes wrote, and it follows the formula of its predecessors. An outrageous crime causes a chain-reaction of violence in “lawless” Harlem. Black detectives “Coffin” Ed Jones and “Gravedigger” Johnson are called in to restore order. The initial event in this novel involves the Rev. Deke O’Malley and his phony back-to-Africa scheme, as Himes dares to parody the Black Muslims and black nationalists, such as Marcus Garvey. The $87,000 O’Malley collects from would-be pilgrims is stolen by white supremacists and stuffed into a cotton bale that falls from their truck, to be found by an itinerant black peddler, Uncle Bud. The investigation by Coffin Ed and Gravedigger is presented almost cinematically, with cross-cutting to other scenes. While they investigate, sneak thieves Loboy and Early Riser practice the “holy dream,” a con, on a church-woman inside a black church. The detectives work their stoolies in Harlem bars, but meanwhile O’Malley is fleeing. A lead takes them to Sarah’s brothel, where they find Loboy, but the white supremacists are attempting to recover the cotton bale by opening a Harlem office for an outrageous Back-to-the-South movement. Uncle Bud sells the cotton bale, apparently unwittingly, to Jewish scrap-dealer Abraham Goodman, whose helper Josh attempts to sell it to the supremacists. Rev. O’Malley learns of this, but when his old girlfriend Iris finds him with new girlfriend Mabel and kills her, he is, well, distracted. He knocks her out and flees, leaving Iris to be captured by police.

Iris, however, seduces the officer assigned to guard her, and locates O’Malley through his assistant Barry – who plans to sell a phony list of the names of the movement’s supporters to the white supremacists. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger shadow Barry to a rendezvous, where he is killed and O’Malley captured. Between trips to Mama Louise’s soul food restaurant, they return to their stoolies for signs of the lost cotton bale, which they now suspect may contain the $87,000.

A break-in at the junkyard confirms this; Mr. Goodman’s assistant Joshua is dead, and Goodman says that the cotton is gone. When the white supremacists and Black Muslims organize marches heading for each other, the detectives step in and re-route them with bullets. Then they find that O’Malley’s church flock have rushed the station house, allowing the reverend to be sprung by gunmen. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger now proceed by illegal means. They disguise Iris as another prisoner and let her loose, tailing her to a secret hideout under O’Malley’s church where the preacher’s two gunmen, who have turned on him, are holding him and hoping she will arrive with the $87,000. When she doesn’t have it, she is bound to O’Malley, and the gunmen engage in a losing shoot-out with the detectives. They locate the bale at the Cotton Club, where an exotic dancer uses it in her number. At the end she auctions it – to Colonel Calhoun of the white supremacists. But the bale turns out to be empty, and the detectives extort $87,000 from the Colonel in return for letting him return to the South and avoid charges in Joshua’s death. In the denouement, sitting at Mama Louise’s, they deduce that Uncle Bud took the money. Indeed, when they check with Air France, they learn that he has gone to Senegal, where he bought hundreds of head of cattle to exchange for the wives he plans to marry.

Himes’ detective novels began appearing in 1957 and, while written in English, were translated to and published in French for Marcel Duhamel’s Serie Noir before appearing himes-youngin English, usually a year later. Himes was living in France then with little idea of what was happening in New York, which was both liberating and limiting.

Coffin Ed and Gravedigger live on the same street in quiet Queens, share a common-looking but souped-up car, feast on soul food, and prefer to drink double scotches. They carry customized weapons: Grave Digger’s fires tracer bullets that set people and objects on fire. Harlem residents believe that the pair will “shoot a man stone cold dead for crossing an imaginary line.”1 The plot uses a motif from Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, for the object of everyone’s search, the cotton bale, turns out to be worthless; and, as in Red Harvest, violent mayhem and scene-by-scene plotting dominate the book. The escape of Uncle Bud, on the other hand, draws on African-American folk motifs (Brer Rabbit and other tricksters), as do Iris’s seduction of the policeman and Col. Calhoun’s return of the Back-to-Africa money. Most of the minor characters are one-dimensional grotesques reminiscent of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, which seems to anticipate the cartoon-like treatment of his characters that Himes delighted in. He also used the brilliant repartee and description that had made Chandler celebrated: “He looked like the born victim of a cheating wife” (18), “If the syndicate had wanted to kill him, he’d be decomposed by now” (15). At a bar called Big Wilt’s Small Paradise Inn, the detectives hear jazz so affecting that Grave Digger feels the instruments are “talking under their clothes” (33). This approach to hard-boiled fiction shows the influence of television, cartoons, and comics at a time when white authors, such as Macdonald, were trying to make the genre more literary.

Himes marked a course for later authors, such as Ishmael Reed in the late 1960s, James Crumley in the 1970s, and Elmore Leonard in the 1980s. Cotton was made into a film 1970 by political activist, actor and writer Ossie Davis, who re-wrote consiberably; it starred Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques and Redd Foxx. Some critics feel it led to the Shaft movies (made from Ernest Tidyman’s novels) and the “blacksploitation” movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

1 Chester Himes, Cotton Comes to Harlem (New York: Vintage, 1988), 116.

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) FILM

The film was co-written and directed in 1970 by Ossie Davis, starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques (both right) as well as Redd Foxx. Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques While the film is based on Himes novel, its is considerably simplified, and he watched from afar.  The detectives’ home lives and some sub-plots were dropped, but the film retains much of the  Invisible Man style political parody. Davis wrote the opening theme song “Ain’t Now But It’s Gonna Be”, which was sung by the young sensation Melba Moore. The film was followed two years later by the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue.

Originally considered a “blaxploitation” film,  Cotton Comes to Harlem was recently been reappraised.  As Eithne Quinn underlined in a 2010 article in Cinema Journal, these films produced a different affect in black audiences.  Austin Fisher and Johnny Walker, In Grindhouse, make a more specific case with regard with regard to the aesthetic of 42nd St.  Most specific is Vivian Halloran’s “‘Black Enough: The Visual Aesthetic of Cotton Comes to Harlem,” (Beyond Blaxploitation:  Wayne State U.P.) which details the extraordinary on-site creativity and neighborhood engagement of Davis.  This makes the film considerably richer and creates a provocative counterpoint between Himes and Davis.



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