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“King Cohen” Makes the Case for the Artistry of an Exploitation Film Hero

The too-easy shorthand description of legendary exploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen is that he’s New York’s answer to Roger Corman. The two share an affinity for the weirder margins of storytelling, have made cult hits with enduring fame for a dime, and possess a mighty work ethic that keeps them creating from morning till night, even today. But where they differ is in motivation. Where Corman wants to make money telling whichever story he foresees will be hot (and he’s been frequently right), Cohen approaches even his most outlandish pictures, like The Stuff (1985), from a personal angle. He infuses them with a message, some kind of moral that you might miss if you’re only paying attention to the killer yogurt. In that way, Cohen is less like Corman than he is a sort of cousin of horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Wes Craven. As those directors have won greater critical consideration, Cohen finally gets his in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this, with scruffy film-world characters (Williamson carefully poses himself lounging with a cigar) shooting the shit about the old days of guerrilla moviemaking and everything you could get away with back then; Martin Scorsese states that nobody could make films like Cohen did post–9-11 as Cohen tells the story of how he shot a brutal, bloody shootout scene at an airport baggage carousel, obviously with no permit. So, yeah.

While Cohen might accept his title as an exploitation director, he does take issue with other filmmakers pretending they’re not exploiting something or someone — “Isn’t every movie an exploitation movie?” he asks. His annoyance specifically stems from people labeling his black-cast films as blaxploitation, especially Black Caesar, which he considered simply an adaptation of James Cagney’s Little Caesar. He asks why his film should be called exploitation, just because he’s giving black actors some work, when Cagney’s film enjoys critical adoration as a classic. It’s a good question, one he’s clearly thought about a lot. Yaphet Kotto, who starred in Cohen’s first picture, the darkly comic dramatic thriller Bone (1972), says that he saw the director as a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. for black actors, kicking down the doors in the 1970s, ushering in the new era of Pam Griers and Richard Roundtrees. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s evident that Cohen really did care about giving work to his African-American collaborators, as well as lampooning in that work the real-life exploiters, notably the wealthy and powerful.

Late in the film, John Landis sheepishly admits that he really does think Cohen’s panned God Told Me To (1976) is actually a great movie. It’s a bonkers story about people murdering others on the order of a superior being with a vagina on its chest and, like all of Cohen’s works, it’s a film played earnestly, even if it is outrageous. Landis loves it, and King Cohen endeavors to remove the stigma of indulging in a Cohen classic, and largely succeeds.

King Cohen
Directed by Steve Mitchell

Dark Star Pictures
Opens August 3, Cinema Village

 

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Nothing but a Man: This Is(n’t) a Man’s World

Nothing but a Man was shot in the summer of 1963—the summer of Medgar Evers, George Wallace at the University of Alabama, and “I Have a Dream”—set in the segregated South but filmed in the precincts of the South Jersey Shore. In his first fiction feature, Michael Roemer, a Berlin-born, Harvard-educated Jew, was looking to capture something essential about black life in small-town, contemporary Alabama. And despite the disjunctions in its inception, from the first black-and-white images by cinematographer/co-screenwriter Robert M. Young, process-oriented scenes of a black section crew putting down railroad track, Nothing but a Man has a commanding veracity that makes a viewer trust in its truth. Laurel-hung at Venice and lauded at the ’64 New York Film Festival, Nothing but a Man submerged from sight afterward but now resurfaces every decade or so in home video or revival—like Film Forum’s week-long run—as if by historical necessity.

Duff Anderson (Ivan Dixon) is introduced working for the railroads for $80 a week, living cooped up in the sticks with his co-workers, including a sarcastic youngblood played by Yaphet Kotto. On one of their trips into town, Duff meets and makes a date with Josie (jazz singer Abbey Lincoln), a 26-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her walleyed stepmother and Baptist preacher father, whose role as liaison to the community’s white owners affords the family a measure of privilege. Daddy disproves of the match, but from the moment Duff and Josie meet, they are all barely suppressed smiles, sharing the private joke of their perfect attraction. Duff tries to play unpolished, oversexed, blue-collar tough with Josie—”All right, so I’m primitive”—but she calls his bluff, appealing to the obvious intelligence in his laughing, liquid eyes.

Briefly rebuffed, Duff visits Birmingham where, in the same day, he meets for practically the first time his four-year-old son and his own father, a broken-down old sot played with dyspeptic intensity by Julius Harris, whose only advice for Duff is not to get married. As though spurred by this negative role model, Duff promptly proposes to Josie and settles down in town with her.

From the first appearance of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” Nothing but a Man‘s soundtrack is supplied by Motown—and much of the town’s black population has followed its beat north to Detroit. Duff finds out why as he’s pushed out of one mill for talking about unionizing and blackballed from the rest, unable to stoop to monkey-suit jobs that compromise his dignity or to ignore the harassment of local peckerwoods. “Make ’em think you’re going along and get what you want,” stepdad advises, but Duff, who saw too much of the world in the military to accept such “the way things are” provincialism, and who has an ineffaceable core dignity besides, glowers back that “it ain’t in me.” A white co-worker rides Duff when he doesn’t laugh at his jibes—”You don’t smile much, do you?” Dixon’s performance is so effective, though, precisely because of his elasticity, including both Duff’s eager readiness for happiness, as well as his smothered indignation. Bent out of shape by the world, Duff will snap back at home, sometimes harshly.

More often, Duff projects a tense, hard-edged pragmatism, figuring a way to tolerate the uneasy, uneven truces between man and woman, middle and working class, white and black, without selling his essential self. Nothing but a Man—the title almost suggests manhood as something trifling. The film, however, confirms it’s a mighty hard ideal to reach.