Cotton Comes to Harlem is an action film co-written and directed in 1970 by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx: it is based on Chester Himes' novel of the same name. The opening theme, "Ain't Now But It's Gonna Be" was written by Ossie Davis and performed by Melba Moore.
Reverend Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart) arrives to fanfare at a rally in Harlem. Meanwhile, two Harlem detectives, Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and "Coffin" Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques) catch a pickpocket, Early Riser, among the crowd and run him off. The Reverend is selling shares in a Back-to-Africa movement ship to be calledThe Black Beauty. Uncle Budd (Redd Foxx) doesn't have the $100 minimum down payment, but the Reverend accepts his $20 for a share. Some men from the District Attorney's office arrive and ask the Reverend to come downtown. The Reverend agrees to leave as several masked gunman jump out a meat truck and begin shooting. They steal $87,000 in cash from the back of an armored car. The Reverend and two assistants chase the meat truck in the armored car; the detectives chase them both in their car. A bale of cotton falls out of the during the chase. The detectives lose them avoiding some youngsters in the street. Riser is hit by the meat truck while fleeing a pickpocketing attempt, which causes the truck and armored car to crash.
The detectives go to the Reverend's girlfriend, Iris Brown (Judy Pace). Iris is roughed up by Ed, but she won't talk. Patrolman Jarema arrives and says Lt., Anderson wants the detectives at the crash site. They tell Jarema to stay and watch Iris. Ed recognizes Early Riser's corpse at the crash site as Gravedigger finds raw cotton in the meat truck. The detectives leave to find Lo Boy (Cleavon Little), Riser's junkie partner, who tells them he saw Barry Waterfield run away from the crash, chased by white men wearing masks. Digger wants to know how Lo Boy knows they were white if they were masked. "They run white, dammit," Lo Boy says.
Iris tricks Jarema and gets away. She meets Billie, who is practicing at the Apollo Theater, and Barry, her boyfriend. The Reverend is hiding out with Mrs. Mabel Hill, the wife of one of the people killed during the robbery. Mrs. Hill tells the Reverend she overheard two white officers discussing a reward for a bale of cotton. Mrs. Hill tries to kiss the Reverend just as Iris enters, starting a fight. Iris bashes Mabel over the head. The Reverend knocks Iris unconscious, and leaves through the window as someone begins pounding at the door.
Gravedigger demands that Caspar Brown, a number runner, take him to his Italian mafia boss. They meet Ed at a Chinese restaurant with an Italian mafioso. The mafioso claims he had nothing to do with the robbery, as $87,000 isn't enough money to be worth angering the whole black community.
Uncle Budd has found the bale of cotton and sells it for $25 to Abe Goodman, a junk dealer. A "white man" (J.D. Cannon) comes by Budd's place looking to buy a bale. Barry is with Budd and scares the white man off. Barry meets the Reverend in a pool hall and tells the Reverend where the bale of cotton is as Digger and Ed watch them from outside. At the junkyard, the Reverend and company search for the cotton as the detectives watch from above. As Ed sneaks down, the masked robbers arrive. A gun fight begins, leaving 6 dead. The Reverend and the remaining robbers flee. Goodman is summoned to be questioned by the police. Goodman says that Budd sold him a bale of cotton, but bought it back later for $30.
The Reverend returns, and the police arrest him. Iris is already in custody, and she has already told the police that the men from the D.A.'s office were fake; that the Reverend would use his trip downtown as cover to disappear with the cash; and that the robbery foiled his plans. Iris has told the police the Reverend hit Mabel. A patrolman informs the detectives and Anderson that Uncle Budd "has been found." However the next scene shows the police at the junk yard - which is by the river - where they discuss the need to dredge it for Budd's body, indicating they don't know where Budd is. They nevertheless discuss Budd's brutal murder.
A minor riot begins to erupt outside the police station, but the detectives promise to recover the missing money and send everyone home. An attorney arrives with a court order to release the Reverend. As the Reverend exits the jail, some men convince the Reverend to leave with them instead, as they know the Reverend is looking for a "white man" and "a bale of cotton." The detectives decide they need bait to catch O'Malley again. Iris escapes from jail, heads back to the theater to find the Reverend tied up by Calhoun, the "white man." Calhoun believes the Reverend has double crossed him and has the money. A sound alerts Calhoun that someone has followed Iris. Two henchman investigate the sounds with Calhoun. Iris threatens the Reverend with a broken glass bottle, but he convinces her to reach into his coat pocket.
Upstairs, the detectives have captured and gagged Calhoun's henchmen. They shoot at Calhoun, who charges back downstairs. The detectives only find a smiling Iris wearing a new engagement ring. Digger quickly discovers a secret panel in the room and pursues the two men. Iris finds a gun in the room, takes it, and leaves. At the police station, Bryce realizes that the detectives aided Iris's escape and sends Jarema after them.
At the Apollo, Billie performs on stage atop the bale during a production of Cotton Comes to Harlem. Iris watches from the crowd as Calhoun and the Reverend go on stage after the bale. The Reverend betrays Calhoun, telling the crowd Calhoun stole the money. The crowd attacks Calhoun, but Digger saves and handcuffs him. The Reverend goes after the bale in the prop room, but Ed is waiting for him. Ed beats the Reverend until Iris enters and shoots at Ed. Digger and Jarema surprise Iris and handcuff her. The Reverend runs to the stage and addresses the crowd. Bloody and disoriented, he attacks the children who are on stage to get their microphone. The crowd abandons him as he pleads for them not to leave him.
Back at the police station, Jarema can't find the money in the bale. Ed and Digger threaten to replace the mafioso with "black capitalists" like Caspar unless he replaces the money, which Anderson then finds in the bale. Jarema insists the money must have been planted after his search, perhaps by Ed and Digger.
Ed and Digger laugh over a postcard from Uncle Budd, who is alive. Budd has retired to Africa with the original $87,000, surrounded by beautiful, and mostly naked, women.
- Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones
- Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson
- Calvin Lockhart as Reverend Deke O'Malley
- Judy Pace as Iris
- Redd Foxx as Uncle Budd / Booker Washington Sims
- Emily Yancy as Mabel
- John Anderson as Bryce
- Lou Jacobi as Goodman
- Eugene Roche as Anderson
- J.D. Cannon as Calhoun
- Mabel Robinson as Billie
- Dick Sabol as Jarema
- Cleavon Little as Lo Boy
- Theodore Wilson as Barry
Cotton Comes to Harlem was a commercial hit. Produced on a budget of $1.2 million, it earned $5.2 million in theatrical rentals during its North American release,making it the 20th highest grossing film of 1970.
The film was one of the many black films that appeared in the 1970s and became an overnight hit. Davis parleyed both humor and drama together and got a film that worked: he also attracted a black audience, which helped make the film a cult classic over the years. It inspired more black films during the '70s, including more action-packed numbers like Shaft and Super Fly . The film inspired the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue, based on original material instead of Chester Himes' works.
Davis' film saw four people debut in the film: Calvin Lockhart, Judy Pace, and Cleavon Little. Lockhart appeared in numerous films and TV shows, sometimes playingtough guy roles. Judy Pace appeared in film and TV, appearing in the TV show The Young Lawyers and the film Frogs, and Cleavon Little made nightclub performances plus films afterwards: the most famous role he did was as Bart in the Mel Brooks comedy Blazing Saddles. Another person who debuted was Redd Foxx, and he proved that even a veteran night club star up in age can do movies as well, leading him to be considered for the TV Show Sanford and Son.
Cotton Comes to Harlem was released to DVD by Fox Video (acting as distributor for MGM) April 1st, 2003, and will be released on Blu-Ray DVD by Kino Lorber (under license from MGM) on September 2, 2014.