From Blaxploitation to ‘Booth’

On Nov. 15, 2002, filmmaker Larry Cohen should have been atthe multiplex, gauging opening day reaction to the film he wrote, “PhoneBooth,” about a man who must outwit a sniper while trapped in the eponymoustelephonic 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 thesnipers (who were ultimately apprehended after killing 10 people and criticallywounding three).

“Phone Booth,” directed by Joel Schumacher and starringcurrent “it boy” Colin Farrell, opens in theaters April 4. 

On this sunny day, Cohen, 64, was bathing in the sunshinethat filled his elegant, 1920s-era home; he was ready to discuss an eclecticcareer, which includes significant contributions to “blaxploitation”(1971-1974) — the urban crime flicks featuring African American actorsdisenfranchised from mainstream Hollywood. This short-lived, but influential,wave was popular and controversial because of violent, racially charged andpolitically 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 the1990s, Cohen was the only white — and Jewish — writer-director creating thesource material. During blaxploitation’s starburst, Cohen made the 1973 hit”Black Caesar,” starring Fred Williamson — a seminal work championed in PublicEnemy’s 1989 rap anthem “Burn, Hollywood, Burn!”

Perhaps Cohen’s “in” to this insular trend came from hisfamily’s roots in Harlem, where “Black Caesar” took place. Cohen’s mother livedon 125th Street. His father, of German Jewish descent, was a landlord, andCohen’s grandfather ran a furnishings store.

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

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

Cohen has Sammy Davis Jr. to thank for his footnote intoblack 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 withhis treatment.

But American International head Samuel Arkoff approachedCohen after “Super Fly” and “Shaft” hit big.

“I had that treatment in my car,” Cohen said. “We made thedeal in 20 minutes.”

Cohen hired James Brown to score his second film. “Hereinvented himself as a result of ‘Black Caesar’ into the Godfather of Soul,” he said.

“Black Caesar’s” success caught Cohen by surprise. “Therewere lines around the block in New York … in February!” he said. 

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

He added, in a scene where honking taxi cabs leap onto thesidewalk, “those are real pedestrians running out of the way. We said, ‘Let’sjust do it.’ New Yorkers are good at getting out of the way of traffic.”

Cohen pushed the guerrilla filmmaking to absurd heights inthe sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem,” where an improvised fight scene had actorsbrawling throughout LAX, up the baggage carousel ramp, and out onto the tarmacamid 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 withtelecommunication. 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 moviespseudo-blaxploitation. But not Cohen, who admires his work.

“Quentin told me he went to Baldwin Hills to see ‘OriginalGangstas’ on opening day,” Cohen said. “I asked him, ‘Why’d you go all the wayout there to see it?’ He said, ‘I wanted to see it with the audience it wasintended for.'”

“Phone Booth” opens in theaters April 4.