Cotton Comes to Harlem

Cotton Comes to Harlem is a 1970 American neo-noir action comedy film co-written and directed by Ossie Davis and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx. The film, later cited as an early example of the blaxploitation genre, 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. The film was one of the many black films that appeared in the 1970s and became an overnight hit. It was followed two years later by the sequel Come Back, Charleston Blue.


Deke "Reverend" O'Malley, a con man, is selling shares at a Harlem rally, for the purchase of a Back-to-Africa movement ship to be called The Black Beauty. During the rally, several masked gunmen jump out of a meat truck and steal $87,000 in donated cash from the back of an armored car. Two Harlem detectives, "Gravedigger" Jones and "Coffin Ed" Johnson, chase the car, and a bale of cotton falls out of the vehicle, unremarked at the time. Though the authorities approve of O'Malley, regarding his "Back-to-Africa" movement as a way to solve American racial problems, both Jones and even more so Johnson are hostile towards him, viewing him as a charlatan who is exploiting the impoverished black community of Harlem. Captain Bryce—who has a portrait of Richard Nixon prominently displayed in his office—tells Jones and Johnson not to treat O'Malley as a suspect, orders that the duo ignore. Jones and Johnson go to the apartment of Iris Brown, O'Malley's mistress, believing he will come to see her at some point, but are called away. Iris is able to escape from the policeman sent to guard her. Iris is shocked to discover O'Malley seducing Mabel Hill, the widow of one of his subordinates killed in the robbery, leading to a fight between the two women and Iris being disillusioned with O'Malley.