Yes, I had enjoyed my stint as a director of Cotton Comes to Harlem. The exercise of power and authority was intoxicating, but I wasn't drunk. Directing calls for a vision and an itch, a dedicated focus, energy, the ability to be mean and stubborn if you have to, and at times, a little devious. Qualities I thoroughly understand, but do not have.1 Ossie Davis
Unlike Gordon Parks and Melvin Van Peebles, Ossie Davis came to film directing via a lengthy tenure as a writer and actor for the stage. In fact, by the 1990s, Davis had achieved a distinctive fifty-year career in theater and an overlapping forty years in film and television. Ossie Davis has been an artistic forerunner and an amazing example of talent and perseverance.
Davis' background has been highlighted in numerous African American biographies, as well as in his enlightening 1998 co-autobiography, With Ossie and Ruby: In This Life Together. Born in 1917 in Cogdell, Georgia, Ossie Davis was the son of religious parents, with his father serving as a preacher in their church. Upon completing high school, Davis attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but unable to meet his financial obligations, he relocated to Washington, D.C., and stayed with relatives while studying at Howard University. The classroom, however, couldn't hold Davis and his ambitions to write fiction and drama. He traveled to Harlem, where he began acting with a black troupe in 1941. Joining the army to help the war effort, Davis was stationed in Liberia, West Africa, where he wrote and produced stage performances to entertain the soldiers. After the war, he returned to New York and continued acting, and in 1948, he met his future wife, Ruby Dee, while they performed the play Anna Lucasta with a touring company. In the 1950s, he added television and film acting to his repertoire, appearing in the films No Way Out (1950) with Sidney Poitier and The Joe Louis Story (1953).
By the '50s, Davis and Ruby Dee emerged as a couple who were both outstanding actors and politically active, targeting racial prejudice in their personal and professional lives. Together, they formed their own theater company, while visibly working for civil rights organizations. Davis' early theatrical triumph as both writer and actor occurred in 1961 with the play Purlie Victorious, which was later made into a film titled Gone Are the Days (1963) and a musical play titled Purlie. More television work followed in the 1960s, but it was in 1970 that he directed his first feature film, Cotton Comes to Harlem. He added to his filmography by directing Kongi's Harvest (1971), Black Girl (1972), Gordon's War (1973), and Countdown at Kusini (1976). Davis has also been credited with being one of the organizers of the New York-based Third World Cinema Corporation, a production entity that also trained filmmakers of color to work in feature and documentary projects; the company is credited with producing two black-oriented films— Claudine (1974), starring Diahann Carroll, and Greased Lightning (1977), starring Richard Pryor.2 In the 1980s and 1990s, Davis continued to win accolades for his stage performances, and a younger generation of viewers has come to recognize his talents as a reappearing face in several Spike Lee films, including School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), and Get on the Bus (1996).
With the film Cotton Comes to Harlem, Davis, as director and coscreen-writer, developed a black-themed movie to be offered to a mainstream audience, helping to launch several years of films that would deliver black characters and settings that reflected the black cultural and political perspectives of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based on same-titled book and black protagonists—Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson—created in the detective series by black author Chester Himes, Cotton is a black urban action comedy that parodies and celebrates black culture and the black community.
The opening credits appear under a song containing lyrics written by Ossie Davis—lyrics that state: ''Ain't now, but it's going to be, black enough for me.'' The statement ''Is that black enough for you?'' resounds throughout the movie, a call that seeks a response about the substance and visibility of one's ''blackness.'' This blackness of attitude, demeanor, and political convictions becomes central to the story line that connects the history of black Americans to the contemporary urban streets viewed during the opening sequence. Exploiting this ''blackness''unashamedly, Deke O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart), a materially successful preacher, proselytizes for membership into his Back-to-Africa ship line. Although Deke possesses the potential to be another Marcus Garvey or Malcolm X, the movie's protagonists —Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques)—perceive O'Malley as the con man he is. As police detectives, Jones and Johnson serve as the controlling force in the community, as well as its protectors. When Deke O'Malley's outdoor rally is broken up by masked gunmen who steal $87,000 belonging to the African ship line, Jones and Johnson discover through Deke's woman, Iris (Judy Pace), that the good reverend had orchestrated the robbery himself. Deke's cohorts hide the stolen money in a bale of cotton that, during their escape, gets lost on the streets of Harlem—lost, that is, until a street junkman named Uncle Bud (Redd Foxx) collects the bale and eventually the money inside.
Most of the film follows the efforts of numerous characters to find that lost bale of cotton in Harlem. Car chases, shootouts, explosions, naked women, hip street language, trendy fashions, and an R&B/jazz-flavored musical score all come together as the basic aspects of this urban action genre. Yet, beneath the movie's comic tone, the director integrates messages about black culture and history. As an example, the director provides an obvious reference to Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa movement of the 1920s through Deke's African ship line organization, but Davis goes further to highlight black history in a scene staged at the Apollo Theater before an enlivened black audience. Having obtained the cotton bale as a prop, a black woman dancer incorporates the bale into her choreography. Dressed in slave clothes and wearing the stereotypical pickaninny braids, she shuffles as a broken woman laboring around the bale; then, removing her slave attire and pickaninny wig, the woman dances atop the bale in liberation. Davis intercuts between the dancer and the black audience, showing the latter's comprehension and appreciation of the symbolic dance. Then, immediately following that performance, a gospel choir takes the stage to sing a traditionally arranged religious song.
Another cultural point comes at the end of the film, when Jones and Johnson have managed to expose and incarcerate Deke; they read a letter from Uncle Bud that is postmarked from Africa. Inside the letter is a color picture postcard with a photo of Uncle Bud, dressed in African attire, sitting regally with three black women attending him. As Johnson begins reading the letter, the still photo card, centrally framed in the camera, becomes a live-action sequence where Uncle Bud explains: ''I am now a retired gentleman raising cotton on my own villa in Africa.'' The director shows the viewer that Uncle Bud, the symbol of the struggling, working black man, has gone full circle; he has taken advantage of the cotton bale to return home to control his own destiny and resources.
Whether or not white audiences evaluated the cultural messages, Davis generously included such messages for black viewers to contemplate. With the success of Cotton, which grossed over $6 million,3 Davis could have continued in a similar vein. However, his passions moved him in a more dramatic direction. His next two films—Kongi's Harvest (1971) and Black Girl (i972)—were both based on material originally written for the stage.
Against the backdrop of the resurging feminist movement in the early 1970s, Black Girl, adapted from a play written by Ms. J. E. Franklin, is a film that explores the intricate and sometimes painful connections between mothers and daughters. Over the opening credits, the title song's lyrics ask the question: ''Black girl, where do you think you are going to? Don't you know what can happen to a black girl who sets her eyes too high?''
As the story begins, Billie Jean (Peggy Pettitt), a black teen, rushes to her waitress job at a local club. Billie Jean's deep desire, however, is to dance at the club, as a way to make money to buy a house for her mother. Dancing is her passion, and when she does finally get the chance to dance on the club's stage, Billie Jean—like the Apollo Theater dancer in Cotton Comes to Harlem—performs an interpretive, African-style dance instead of a popular dance of the day. But Billie Jean's ambitions are hidden from her family, as she locks herself behind doors at home to practice her dancing in private.
At home Billie Jean shares a small home in a multigenerational household of women: Mu' Dear (Claudia McNeil), the grandmother; Mama Rosie (Louise Stubbs), the mother; and half-sisters Norma Faye (Gloria Edwards) and Ruth Ann (Loretta Greene), who constantly visit the house. As the film moves from a specific focus on Billie Jean to the other women in her life, the intense frustrations, anger, and desperation increase.
Mama Rosie, an obstinate woman, ridicules her daughters for their lack of achievement and fulfillment as she defines it. Constantly finding fault with her three biological daughters, Mama Rosie praises the accomplishments of her adopted daughter Netta (Leslie Uggams), a homeless girl she took in and raised. Netta, on the verge of graduating from college, remains the standard of excellence for Rosie, who hopes the educated daughter will return home to teach. Norma Faye (the oldest daughter), Ruth Ann (pregnant and a mother of two), and Billie Jean (who has quit school to dance) all share a resentment for Netta, as they struggle to find the favor of their mother. Oddly enough, Norma Faye and Ruth Ann, who are devious conspirators, also target Billie Jean as their emotional scapegoat because she has a different father and an ambition to dance.
At the same time, Mu' Dear and Mama Rosie have their own issues, as their often confrontational dialogue refers back to their troubled past. Additionally, Rosie also failed to love the men in her life, who have left her in her solitude of bitterness. When Earl (Brock Peters), one of her ex-husbands, returns to ask Rosie to go away to Detroit, the two find themselves unable to get past the problems of their former marriage. Earl (father to Norma Faye and Ruth Ann) has developed a successful shoe business, and he pleads for a new start with Rosie. Although Rosie is dissatisfied with her present life, she refuses to forgive Earl's infidelity that occurred eighteen years before.
Having faith in the script and his actors, Davis directs in a straightforward way that doesn't attempt to obscure the various story lines. From the cramped bedroom where Billie Jean rehearses her dancing, to the palpable tension among sisters, to the lighter sexual innuendos exchanged between Rosie and Earl—Davis moves the viewer between scenes and tones revealing the layers of emotions and flaws within each character. Davis avoids askew camera angles and erratic cutting as he peels back the surface of the characters to expose the frustrations simmering beneath.
In the interior of Rosie's house, Davis places his characters within hallway doorframes to emphasize the sense of incarceration that the women feel, limited and trapped by circumstances beyond their control. In a similar fashion, he uses space effectively, consistently placing Norma Faye and Ruth Ann together on one side of the frame with Billie Jean distanced on the other side. One of the strongest interior scenes occurs when the three sisters and Netta have a confrontation in the living room. Davis cuts from long shots to close shots, as the initial coldness toward Netta escalates into a dangerous moment when Norma Faye threatens Netta with a knife. Part of that escalation contains dialogue that shows the manner in which the two sisters use "femininity" as a weapon of choice. As Norma Faye and Ruth Ann deride Netta for attending a white college, they accuse her of being a lesbian because Netta does not have a man in her life. Norma Faye chides that Netta won't ''disgrace this family by ending up funny [lesbian].'' Ruth Ann adds disdainfully: ''Raise up Netta's dress to see what the freak got. Didn't ever want to be seen naked—maybe she's a man . . .'' Davis allows this impassioned scene to play itself out in a naturally intimidating manner without drawing attention to the camera and without any melodramatic music.
With the films Cotton Comes to Harlem and Black Girl, Davis shows that he can handle both comedy and drama handily, and he also displays an obvious respect for African American culture and community. And though Black Girl didn't raise the profits brought in by Cotton, the discrepancy in popularity rests more in the times than in any misdirection on Davis' part. Studios were perhaps unenthusiastic about marketing a film that explored emotional and psychological dimensions of black womanhood, and perhaps audiences were still hungry for the trendy black urban action films that dominated the period. But Davis gave notice that working-class black women—who were not prostitutes, drug users, or gun-toting heroines—had stories to tell that were provocative and relevant.
Davis' additional films did not attain either the critical praise or the wide audience of his first film, but in aggregate the films demonstrate the ongoing commitment to black cultural concerns that permeates Davis' position as a director. Kongi's Harvest (1971) was an effort to bring the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka's stage project of the same title to the screen. The film was independently financed but was unable to find an American distributor. With an all-African cast and shot in Nigeria, the film was, according to Davis, ''a comedy of African politics [which shows] Africa as Africans see it.''4
Gordon's War (1973) brought Davis back to the Harlem setting. The title character, a black Vietnam vet, returns to his urban home and organizes a war against the drug dealers pervading his community. With a mixed review, one critique praises the ''sharp direction of Ossie Davis [who] catches the argot, the flavor and the sinister ambiance of the area,'' but concludes that the ''picture is inconclusive, far from profound, and the urgency of the theme has been overly simplified to fit the action.''5 Davis' last film directorial effort—Countdown at Kusini (1976), costarring Davis with Ruby Dee—failed to find an audience and fared no better with the critics. The story, which Davis cowrote, is set in a fictional West African nation, and it explores the postcolonial struggles of a new nation as multinational corporations strate-gize to take the country over. One critic asserts that the film ''wants to be 'serious' about African aspirations while also being entertaining. Though it tries hard, it's neither.''6 Still another reviewer ridiculed the project as the ''sort of movie that illustrates what happens when achievement falls short of aims. . . . [T]his movie—filmed in and around Lagos, Nigeria—emerges as subpar adventure and less than lucid ideology.''7
Having survived all of the less than favorable critical attention over the years for his directing, in the 1990s Ossie Davis continued to be a visible force in film, theater, and television. Apparently uninterested in dominating the spotlight, Davis has worked in a more quiet but consistent manner, bringing African American themes, issues, and experiences to mainstream audiences. And in those endeavors, his pride and confidence have always shone through despite obstacles and pejorative reception from many. With a seemingly extraordinary energy, he remains one of the few singular talents who has excelled in a variety of mediums and who has distinguished himself as a writer, actor, and director.
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