Before Sidney Poitier’s breakthrough performance in No Way Out (1950), African American actors in film noir — originally a toned-down black-and-white visual style that emerged in Hollywood in the late 1930s, were cast only in marginal parts. As servants, shoe shiners or jazz musicians. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, No Way Out was the only film noir in which a black man played the hero. Another two decades would pass before the studios relaxed their racist limitations on black talents in film noir, a genre spun by Depression-era hard-boiled crime fiction that would evolve to embrace an ever wider range of visual styles. What’s now called black noir— movies depicting aspects of black life in the noir style— or shot in part or whole in black neighborhoods, or featuring black actors in major roles, would not emerge until the early 1970s, coinciding for better or worse with the blaxploitation craze. Here in chronological order, the best 10 noir movies set in Harlem.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1969 espionage thriller, based on the novel by Leon Uris, was the first big-production Hollywood noir to feature Harlem in a meaningful way. Topaz is the story of a French spy caught up in the Cold War imbroglio leading up to the Cuban missile crisis. Frederick Stafford plays Andre Devereaux, the agent tasked with bribing a Cuban diplomat in New York to steal documents and photos of Soviet missile bases on Cuban soil. Devereaux, in turn, enlists a black French agent (Roscoe Lee Browne) to recruit an aide to the top Cuban diplomat, who is staying at the Hotel Teresa (on Adam Clayton Boulevard) in solidarity with the black community. Hitchcock deftly directs his camera in and around the Teresa, capturing its grand architecture in one of the movie’s key scenes, replete with a gun battle and a foot chase through nearby streets.
Directed by Ossie Davis in 1970 and starring Godfrey Cambridge, Raymond St. Jacques, and Redd Foxx, Cotton Comes To Harlem is based on Chester Himes’ detective novel of the same name. The movie is commonly (rather unfairly) associated with the blaxploitation genre. But Davis’ ambition had been to produce an authentic black film noir, and he succeeds in many respects. In Cotton Comes To Harlem, Deke O’Malley (played by Calvin Lockhart) is a Harlem reverend selling shares at a rally to purchase a ship for his Back-to-Africa movement. As O’Malley holds forth, masked gunmen jump out of a truck and make away with a cash-in-transit armored car. A bale of cotton falls out of the armored car as local detectives Gravedigger Jones (Cambridge) and “Coffin” Ed Johnson (St. Jacques) give chase but fail to catch up to the thieves. A reward is set for whoever finds the bale of cotton and the $87,000 stashed inside of it. Jones and Johnson’s suspicions soon settle for Reverend O’Malley and the preacher is taken into custody, setting off a whodunit with a world of suspects stretching from Harlem to Africa.
Shaft, director Gordon Parks’ action-crime feature is widely recognized as the first detective movie to combine visual characteristics of blaxploitation and classic film noir. It’s the story of John Shaft, a private detective. Shaft is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from an Italian underworld rival who had kidnapped her. Richard Roundtree plays the title role in a groundbreaking production that addressed major themes of race, black masculinity and sexuality, the Black Power movement. It was shot in Harlem, Greenwich Village and Times Square. Recorded by Isaac Hayes, its soundtrack album won three Grammies. In 2000, Shaft was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Also in 2000, director John Singleton cast Samuel L. Jackson as John Shaft in a sequel to the 1971 original.
This 1972 crime drama is directed by Barry Shear and stars Yaphet Kotto, Anthony Quinn, and Anthony Franciosa. Like Shaft before it,Across 110th Street won considerable critical praise for its crossover blend of Hollywood noir and blaxploitation. It is almost entirely set in Harlem, with 110th Street an informal but very real boundary line between black and white New York. Yaphet Kotto played the part of Lieutenant William Pope, a painfully dignified black detective who must team up with Captain Frank Mattelli (Quinn), a crude and racist Italian-American, to track down a group of black men who slaughtered seven people during a heist at a mafia-owned policy bank in Harlem. To complicate matters, mobster Nick D’Salvio (Franciosa) and his killers are also on the killers’ trail.
Francis Ford Coppola directs this lavish 1984 crime drama shot. Shot in grand noir style, The Cotton Club unfolds in and around The Cotton Club, the famed Harlem jazz club of the 1930s– where most performers are black and nearly all patrons white. Coppola shared script-writing credits with William Kennedy for this big-budget production interspaced with several scenes of live music and dance choreographed by Henry LeTang. The Cotton Club stars Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, and Diane Lane. Bob Hoskins, Nicolas Cage, and Laurence Fishburne had supporting roles. The movie’s sprawling plot describes the rags-to-fame story of Dixie Dwyer, a down-on-his-luck jazz musician who sets out to work with the mafia in order to advance his career. Dixie’s ambitions lead him to Hollywood where he makes a name for himself as an actor. As if his Faustian bargain with the Harlem mob weren’t enough to have him on his guards, Dixie adds to his lot by bedding the girlfriend of gangland kingpin Dutch Schultz. His ego bitterly wounded, the revenge-crazed Schulz instructs his henchmen to take care of Dixie.
In Angel Heart, director Alan Parker’s 1987 horror-and-occult detective film, Mickey Rourke stars as Harry Angel, a gumshoe in the 1950s Harlem. Angel is hired to solve the disappearance of a man known as Johnny Favorite. His assignment leads him to New Orleans where he becomes entangled in a string of brutal voodoo-inspired killings. Parker’s neo-noir received mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office, only to gain cult status in the following years, with some critics now calling it one of the best horror films ever made. Angel Heart was also marred by controversy even before its release, due to a graphic sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonnet of The Cosby Show fame. The film faced threats of censorship by the Motion Picture Association, compelling Parker to edit out ten seconds of the Rourke-Bonet sex scene in order to avoid an “X” rating. He would later release a video-only version of the uncensored movie.
This classic crime novel from Chester Himes’ Harlem detective series, A Rage in Harlem was actually shot in a Cincinnati neighborhood whose “ungentrified area of the old downtown lower depths stood in quite nicely for 1950s Harlem,” as director Bill Duke would later explain. Duke’s “quirky tour de force” was perhaps the first Hollywood production to depict black rage in film noir with empathy and theatrical near-precision. It starred Forest Whitaker in the role of Jackson, a Harlem gang leader, and Robin Givens as Imabelle, his moll. Danny Glover and Gregory Hines co-starred as Easy Money and Goldy, respectively. Bill Duke was offered the directorial lead in part because the studios insisted on having an African American to maintain the “cultural integrity” of Himes’ Harlem crime story. The debate continues to this day on whether or not Duke has lived up to the studios’ expectations.
Written by Ernest Dickerson and Gerard Brown and directed by Dickerson, Juice is a 1992 so-called ghetto noir starring Omar Epps, Tupac Shakur (in his acting debut), and Samuel L. Jackson. The movie features an A-list of cameo appearances by hip hop luminaries including Dr. Dre, Queen Latifah, EPMD, Fab Five Freddy, Treach and many others. It depicts the lives of four youths growing up in Harlem and their slow but unstoppable transformation from petty thieves into hardened criminals. Shot almost entirely in Harlem, Juice shed new light on the struggles of young African American men who must endure various forms of harassment and humiliation, not only at the hands of police, but also from neighborhood gangs and their own families.
Another Bill Duke directorial accomplishment in noir, Hoodlum is a 1997 fictionalized black perspective on the gang war between the Italian and Jewish mafia alliance and Harlem’s black mobsters, a fierce turf battle that raged above 110th Street in the 1920s and early 1930s. Hoodlum stars Laurence Fishburne as Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, an ex-convict who corners the local numbers racket and brutally defends his territory against Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) and his henchmen. Roger Ebert praised Duke for Hoodlum, noting that the director had transformed the original script into “a historical drama as much as a thriller, and his characters reflect a time when Harlem seemed poised on the brink of better things and the despair of the postwar years was not easily seen on its prosperous streets.” But The New York Times dismissed Duke’s effort as a “hugely ambitious but unsatisfying gangster film.”
Ridley Scott’s 2007 biographical neo-noir American Gangster is a fictionalized account of the criminal career of real-life Harlem gangster Frank Lucas. The film was shot in Harlem, New York City, and Thailand. It stars Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as the DEA agent who brings Lucas down after years of a long and violent manhunt. The cast included Ted Levine, Josh Brolin, John Ortiz, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee and Cuba Gooding Jr. American Gangster was well received by most critics and grossed over $260 million worldwide. But many of the people portrayed, including both its main protagonists, have dismissed it for taking a lot of creative license with their story. American Gangster went on to receive twenty-one awards, including two Oscar nominations for best art direction and best supporting actress (Ruby Dee). It took home three Screen Actors Guild awards, including best female performance for Dee.