Costuming the Blaxploitation Hero | Clothes on Film
The gangster genre’s central protagonist (antagonist?) is conspicuous in his journey from street kid to street king by coveting the finest fabrics and tailoring that money can buy. He becomes a vain, petty man destroyed by inability to reconcile his old simpler world with the politics of his new one. It is no accident that most of the principal characters in gangster films are minorities, symbolising a detachment from society and upending of the American dream. He/she can be as rich and powerful as he/she wants, but for those born on the wrong side of the tracks (i.e. minorities, if conforming to the genre model), the only way to fulfil this dream is through crime.
Many blaxploitation films take this same storyline as positive reinforcement of the late 1960s Black Power movement. These low-budget movies were made, for the most part, by African American males for African American males. In hindsight this could either be considered racist stereotyping or the first pivotal movement in black cinema. While Black Caesar (1973, no credited costume designer) conforms to the overt blaxploitation model by starring a black lead actor, Fred Williamson as Tommy Gibbs (the part was originally written for Sammy Davis Jr.), and featuring a predominantly black cast, it was produced, written and directed by a white filmmaker, Larry Cohen. Perhaps in this respect it cannot truly be a blaxploitation movie as it cashes in on the genre rather than strengthens it? It’s an open question.
Omer Jeffrey as young Tommy Gibbs. Like all wannabe godfathers of the street, Tommy grew up in hand-me-downs. This formulated his goal in life – the acquisition of money and possessions, especially clothes.
Now financed by organised crime, adult Tommy (Fred Williamson) is able to wear expensive pinstripe suits. Tommy always sports details that make him stand out, such as a patch chest pocket and western style hip pockets (above), both indicative of 1970s trends. He checks his suit constantly.
Black Caesar is actually a remake of Little Caesar (1931) starring Edward G. Robinson as Rico, a Romanian immigrant seeking his fortune in Chicago. He rises to power through organised crime, draped in the flamboyance of success – camel coat, bowler hat, double breasted waistcoats, lush pinstripe suits – and then crashes spectacularly. As with all gangster movies from the thirties, the chief villain is eradicated and a crime-does-not-pay world view stabilised. Tommy Gibbs’ life follows a similar pattern in Black Caesar, although presumably because he is aware of the film Little Caesar his own path is based on adherence to codes established by Rico. Underpinning this point is the moment when mortally wounded Tommy stumbles past a cinema showing The Godfather (Black Caesar is titled The Godfather of Harlem in the U.S.). Tommy would not have seen many movies growing up, but Little Caesar would likely be one of them.
As a shoeshine boy in ripped jeans and t-shirt, Tommy is beaten by racist beat cop McKinney (Art Lund) and hobbled for life. After several years incarcerated he arrives back in New York ready to forge his own criminal empire backed only by gumption, a gun and some funktastic James Brown tunes. Intentionally ingratiating himself with the Italian mafia by murdering one of their enemies, Tommy is given his own part of the city to run on their behalf – Harlem. A montage demonstrates the violence Tommy uses to get a grip on the streets, but not before he becomes distracted gazing in a hat store window. Rico’s codes are being assembled, prematurely perhaps, as Tommy is more concerned with dressing the part than actually doing the work. Tommy does not seem to enjoy violence as much as acting the boss. His goal is less orientated toward crime, which is a means to an end, and instead focused on becoming part a rich, white society that will continue to reject him no matter how much money he makes.
One of the first shots in Tommy’s ‘rise to power’ montage shows him strutting through the street playing big shot then immediately distracted by a hat shop. That hat is an essential dress code of the 1930s gangster.
Tommy pays cash for an apartment in upscale New York, including all the previous owner’s possessions which he flings off the balcony. This is a metaphor for his assimilation then rejection of so-called polite (read upper-class, read white) society.
Tommy’s new world fears him. He enjoys this, but mistakenly believes that wealth and respect on the street constitute his acceptance. He forcibly buys an apartment in an exclusive complex in Manhattan including all of the previous owner’s clothes that he then drops off the balcony as a rejection their bourgeois ideology. Posse
ssions are so powerful to Tommy that even after raping his girlfriend he gives her a present from department store Bergdorf Goodman and expects that she be grateful. “Nobody appreciates anything I give them” he mutters as she tosses the gift aside. The notion of acquiring possessions in a world that would only allow him hand-me-downs as a boy is what brings about Tommy’s downfall. He forgets who he is and betrays his roots. His best friend even calls him a “white nigger”. Tommy becomes lost in a place that he does not know or understand.
Even though Tommy is inspired by sartorial gangster codes in thirties cinema, his clothes are relatively subdued for a blaxploitation movie, quite unlike the larger-than-life pimp styles of Superfly (1972) or even Shaft (1971). The story is set during 1953-72, but everything Tommy wears appears to be dated from when the film was shot (in ’72). His typical look is a light brown, grey or blue single or double breasted pinstripe suit with wide lapels, homburg or fedora hat, plain pointed collar shirt, Windsor knot necktie and brogues – sometimes two-tone. Trouser flare is kept to a minimum, although all his suits are embellished with fussy touches such as visible seams, a half-belt, bowed lapels and denim-like patch pockets. This helps him stand out against the plain black suit, white shirt and black tie uniform of the mafia, which by this point had become something of a parody. The sequence where Tommy’s crew massacre a mafia family in California is basically cool cats vs. squares; Tommy’s crew wear colourful street fashions while most of the mafia are dressed for a wake (quite appropriate really).
The mafia hit is carried out by Tommy’s gang in full street wear. Note the guy in the vibrant white suit (he does most of the shooting) and that two of the gang are wearing berets, which in context are heavily symbolic of the Black Panther political movement..
Tommy in full thirties gangster mode wearing two-tone brogues and wide pinstripe suit. After raping his girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry), Tommy buys her a present from high-class department store Berdorf Goodman. This is what he does; tries to control people with possessions. Fittingly Tommy is fatally shot while holding a box of jewellery from Tiffany & Co.
When megalomania takes hold of Tommy he lets his guard down. He presumes the white world he bought into is now resigned to his presence. Except he destabilises this world, he frightens it. While they were happy to play his game for a time, Tommy was only ever renting space, he never really belonged. He becomes trapped in a kind of no-man’s land between the old life world he has rejected and the new world that rejects him. It is appropriate that Tommy takes that fatal bullet after shopping at Tiffany & Co., spending more money and buying more things. His final confrontation with McKinney is emblematic of the fear Tommy strikes in white society. McKinney fights on his hands and knees dripping in blood while Tommy paints his face with shoe polish, in essence making him black. His fear is loss of identity through assimilation of the ‘other’; McKinney is terrified not of Tommy, but what he represents – change.
Tommy heads back to the ghetto in a last ditch attempt to reclaim his roots. The apartment blocks where he grew up are now derelict, practically rubble. There is no solace in home. Stumbling around in his blood-soaked tailored suit the gangster dress code is complete. Tommy’s end is met in expensive attire worth no more to him now than the rags he grew up in. The possessions he yearned for are then yanked from his body by a teenage gang perpetrating an endless cycle of crime. Tommy Gibbs is the deconstructed gangster mask, no different now than the 1930s-40’s. In this genre clothes do not create or define identity, they only eradicate it.
If you would like to read more about blaxploitation movies may we suggest the excellent ‘Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide’ by Josiah Howard.
You can watch Fred Williamson in Black Caesar at LOVEFiLM.com .
© 2013, Christopher Laverty .
Clothes Tell Stories
This website is a bit outside of the scope of the course, since it deals with the materiality and display of clothes as objects, but it is a valuable resource for understanding and identifying the constituent parts of dress.