Adapting Cotton Comes to Harlem: From Inter- to Intraracial Conflict

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Adapting Cotton Comes to Harlem: From Inter- to Intraracial Conflict

Describing his novels as the "most militant prose ever printed to condemn American racism" (qtd. in Hochkeppel 28), Chester Himes was inevitably disappointed with the penumbral adaptation of his 1965 novel Cotton Comes to Harlem (Ossie Davis, 1970). The task of adapting the novel changed hands almost as many times as the bail of cotton pivotal to its plot. Himes himself wrote what he called a "quickie" version of the screenplay, which producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr., rejected and paid him "practically nothing for" (qtd. in Williams 51). Goldwyn was also interested in using Amid Baraka as screenwriter but did not accept his terms. Final credit for the project would go to Arnold Perl and Ossie Davis. According to Himes, Perl's initial treatment "had some stuff...that was really offensive. The treatment of the blacks in there was so offensive" (52). It was Davis who tried to develop a "black orientation" in Perl's treatment which Himes felt "much improved" the script, yet the film remains a contradictory, contested site, far from the "jet black" essentialism with which Life reporter Rudolph Chelminski promoted it in 1970 (Chelminski 58).

The plot of the novel centers on the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson's pursuit of $87,000 stolen from a Harlem Back-to-Africa rally by white gunmen, who get away in a delivery truck. The Reverend Deke O'Malley, a.k.a Deke O'Hara, ironically imprisoned for tax evasion after he betrayed his racketeer bosses, collected the $87,000 from subscribers whom he conned into believing were purchasing a passage to Africa. Lieutenant Anderson assigns Jones and Johnson to keep O'Malley alive because of political pressure to prevent a race riot. O'Malley disappears after the delivery truck, which he and his men pursue in an armored truck, crashes, spilling a bale of cotton picked up by Uncle Bud, a homeless person who collects junk. When Jones and Johnson arrive at the scene of the accident, they suspect that the theft was set up by O'Malley and become outraged that he would cheat the people of Harlem, described as a "city of the homeless" often displaced from the South by whites seeking to avenge desegregation (26). O'Malley does not know what has happened to the money, however, and, on the ran, is warned that the police are on his trail when he telephones his girlfriend, Iris. He hides out with Mabel Hill, one of his followers whom he seduces, and arranges for Barry Waterfield to betray the subscribers by selling a list of their names to the leader of the racist Back-to-the-Southland movement, Colonel Robert L. Calhoun, who opposes the Back-to-Africa project. Just after the rally, Calhoun opens a storefront on Seventh Avenue in order to attract African Americans with propaganda for cotton picker jobs in the South, arguing that returning blacks to the South is "for their own good" (58). After making a deal with Calhoun, Waterfield notices a wanted sign for a bale of cotton displayed in the window of the Back-to-the-Southland office. Uncle Bud sells the bale of cotton to a junk dealer, Goodman, whose workman, Josh, arranges to sell it to Calhoun. Meanwhile, Iris tricks a police guard, escapes, and murders Mabel Hill when she finds her with O'Malley. O'Malley beats Iris brutally and escapes, but is trailed by the police after Iris reveals Barry Waterfield's name. When O'Malley and Waterfield rendezvous with Calhoun to sell the list, Waterfield is murdered and Jones and Johnson arrest O'Malley. After Josh is discovered stabbed to death, Jones and Johnson realize the bail of cotton is the missing link in the investigation. Calhoun leads a Back-to-the-Southland parade across 130th Street which Jones and Johnson break up to prevent conflict with the Black Muslims and O'Malley's Back-to-Africa followers. While being transferred to the magistrate's court surrounded by over a thousand of his devotees, O'Malley escapes with two of his gunmen, Freddy and Four-Four. …


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