Godfrey Cambridge looking skeptically at Judy Pace who wears a metallic gold topalr

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Introduction by Matthew Wittmann
Screening on Film
Directed by Ossie Davis.
With Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, Calvin Lockhart.
US, 1970, 35mm, color, 97 min.
Print source: Park Circus

This screening celebrates the recent acquisition of actor/comedian Godfrey Cambridge’s papers by Harvard University. The archive, which includes manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and audiovisual materials documenting his career on stage and screen, is open for research at Houghton Library. Matthew Wittmann, Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection, will enlighten the audience with details about Cambridge and his creative and politically active life.

Often credited as the first blaxploitation movie, Cotton Comes to Harlem is also the first film directed by actor Ossie Davis and features the film debuts of Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, Cleavon Little and Redd Foxx. The popular comedian Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques star as detectives “Gravedigger” Jones and “Coffin Ed” Johnson, characters created by Chester Himes in a series of Harlem crime novels. A surprise box office hit, the film is a rainbow whirl of action and comedy with some trenchant asides about race and class as the two Black detectives attempt to expose the revered reverend swindling Harlem residents through his supposed “back-to-Africa” movement. Davis packs as much as he possibly can from Himes’ wild, pulpy thriller into a nonstop parade of offbeat characters mixed up in theft, sex, murder, double-crosses, kidnapping, jailbreaks, hidden chambers and of course, that elusive bale of cotton. As Gravedigger, Cambridge effortlessly subdues criminals and banters with Coffin Ed while maintaining his signature dry humor and cool exterior. With some wily individuals giving them a run for their money, the detectives outwit both their superiors at the station and all the assorted lawbreakers in solving this convoluted crime. – Brittany Gravely