Golden Anniversaries: Films of 1970

Cotton Comes to Harlem and The Watermelon Man with Novotny Lawrence

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Actor and stand-up comic Godfrey Cambridge stars in both films of this double bill of Blaxploitation forerunners. Directed by Ossie Davis, “Cotton Comes to Harlem” adapts Chester Himes’ novel, in which Harlem’s African-American population is conned by the Rev. Deke O’Malley (Calvin Lockhart), who is selling shares for the purchase of a “Back to Africa” ship. When gunmen steal the donations, NYC police officers Gravedigger Jones (Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) pursue and eventually discover the cash is stowed inside a bale of cotton. St. Louis’ own Red Foxx co-stars. In “The Watermelon Man” — directed by the groundbreaking Melvin van Peebles (“Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”) —Jeff, a White insurance salesman (Cambridge), wakes up to discover that he’s now a Black man and soon finds himself the victim of the same kind of discrimination he once routinely practiced. Although his wife (Estelle Parsons) leaves him and all attempts to reverse the skin-color change fail, Jeff comes to accept and even profit from his new status.

Cotton Comes to Harlem

Ossie Davis, U.S., 1970, 97 min.

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The Watermelon Man

Melvin van Peebles, U.S., 1970, 100 min.

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Intro and discussion by Novotny Lawrence, associate professor at Iowa State University, author of “Blaxploitation Films of the 1970s: Blackness and Genre,” editor of “Documenting the Black Experience,” and co-editor of “Beyond Blaxploitation.”