Jewish Journal


April 3, 2003

From Blaxploitation to ‘Booth’


On Nov. 15, 2002, filmmaker Larry Cohen should have been at the multiplex, gauging opening day reaction to the film he wrote, "Phone Booth," about a man who must outwit a sniper while trapped in the eponymous telephonic cabin. But the Washington Sniper changed all that.

No, Cohen was not the target of a hit. But his movie was, last October, when 20th Century Fox postponed the release because of the snipers (who were ultimately apprehended after killing 10 people and critically wounding three).

"Phone Booth," directed by Joel Schumacher and starring current "it boy" Colin Farrell, opens in theaters April 4. 

On this sunny day, Cohen, 64, was bathing in the sunshine that filled his elegant, 1920s-era home; he was ready to discuss an eclectic career, which includes significant contributions to "blaxploitation" (1971-1974) -- the urban crime flicks featuring African American actors disenfranchised from mainstream Hollywood. This short-lived, but influential, wave was popular and controversial because of violent, racially charged and politically incorrect depictions of police, politicians, pimps and drug lords. Blaxploitation recently made a kitschy comeback in rap, the 2000 "Shaft" remake, and last summer's "Goldmember: Austin Powers III" and "Undercover Brother."

Long before Quentin Tarantino revived blaxploitation in the 1990s, Cohen was the only white -- and Jewish -- writer-director creating the source material. During blaxploitation's starburst, Cohen made the 1973 hit "Black Caesar," starring Fred Williamson -- a seminal work championed in Public Enemy's 1989 rap anthem "Burn, Hollywood, Burn!"

Perhaps Cohen's "in" to this insular trend came from his family's roots in Harlem, where "Black Caesar" took place. Cohen's mother lived on 125th Street. His father, of German Jewish descent, was a landlord, and Cohen's grandfather ran a furnishings store.

Cohen grew up in Washington Heights, where he was bar mitzvahed despite a secular upbringing and attended George Washington High School, from which legendary independent film director Sam Fuller was expelled.

Cohen's current home, which he shares with wife Cynthia, was purchased from Fuller and originally owned by William Randolph Hearst.

Cohen has Sammy Davis Jr. to thank for his footnote into black film history. Davis hired Cohen to create a vehicle for the Rat Packer.

Cohen was offered $10,000 to write a gangster picture in the "Little Caesar" vein. Then Davis experienced IRS problems. Cohen was stuck with his treatment.

But American International head Samuel Arkoff approached Cohen after "Super Fly" and "Shaft" hit big.

"I had that treatment in my car," Cohen said. "We made the deal in 20 minutes."

Cohen hired James Brown to score his second film. "He reinvented himself as a result of 'Black Caesar' into the Godfather of Soul,"  he said.

"Black Caesar's" success caught Cohen by surprise. "There were lines around the block in New York ... in February!" he said. 

Cohen has garnered praise from his blaxploitation peers because he never glamorized criminals.

He added, in a scene where honking taxi cabs leap onto the sidewalk, "those are real pedestrians running out of the way. We said, 'Let's just do it.' New Yorkers are good at getting out of the way of traffic."

Cohen pushed the guerrilla filmmaking to absurd heights in the sequel, "Hell Up in Harlem," where an improvised fight scene had actors brawling throughout LAX, up the baggage carousel ramp, and out onto the tarmac amid taxiing 747s. Incredibly, airport security never intervened.

"Today we'd be shot or arrested or both," Cohen said.

As fodder for potboilers, Cohen is not through with telecommunication. David Ellis is directing his latest script,  "Cellular."

Among the DVDs on Cohen's shelf sits "Reservoir Dogs." Compared to "Black Caesar," some might consider Tarantino's movies pseudo-blaxploitation. But not Cohen, who admires his work.

"Quentin told me he went to Baldwin Hills to see 'Original Gangstas' on opening day," Cohen said. "I asked him, 'Why'd you go all the way out there to see it?' He said, 'I wanted to see it with the audience it was intended for.'"

"Phone Booth" opens in theaters April 4.  

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