CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME (1975) — What It Means To Be A Man, New On Blu

by Austin Vashaw

Olive Films released Cornbread, Earl And Me to Blu-ray (and re-released on DVD) on June 21.

1975 was a productive year for NBA star Keith (who later changed his name to Jamaal) Wilkes. His first season playing for the Golden State Warriors earned him the coveted Rookie Of The Year Award. Outside his new basketball career, the future All-Star and NBA Champ also took to movie screens, playing the first title character in AIP’s urban family drama Cornbread, Earl And Me.

18-year-old Nathaniel “Cornbread” Hamilton is a good kid. His black neighborhood is home to gang members, numbers runners, and assorted criminal pressures, but his vices are limited to drinking soda and noisily bouncing his basketball inside his apartment building. Nobody seems to mind the dribbling that much, because he’s the best talent in the city, headed to college on a scholarship and almost certainly the pros after. He’s the hero of the local kids, and that’s OK with their parents because he’s a great role model — friendly, well-behaved, respectful to his parents, and full of hope for the future. Among Cornbread’s biggest fans are his 12-year-old cousin Wilford (Laurence Fishburne in his film debut, and the “Me” of the title) who lives in the same apartment building, and his pal Earl.

Tragedy strikes when Wilford and Earl — along with many others — witness their idol being gunned down by a pair of well-meaning cops (Bernie Casey and Vince Martorano) in a case of mistaken identity.

This would be traumatizing enough for any child, but the police department and city government refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing in the case, and insist that Cornbread was guilty of a nearby shooting. Several people saw that he was on his way home from the corner store when he was slayed, but a corrupt arm of the police department visits and intimidates these witnesses with menacing threats, promising to plant incriminating evidence, withhold welfare checks, and otherwise terrorize them. Cornbread’s parents (Wilford’s aunt and uncle) seek to clear their son’s name, but one by one their allies and witnesses fall away, bowing to pressure from crooked cops.

It becomes the burden of the young boy to be the sole voice of truth — aided by his fearless mother and a helpful and concerned lawyer (Rosalind Cash and Moses Gunn, coming right off of playing spouses in Amazing Grace and sharing terrific chemistry in their scenes together). The power of parental love is a persistent theme throughout the film, seen in the tireless and sacrificial efforts of Cornbread’s parents and Wilford’s single mother, and inversely echoed in Wilford’s need for a father figure. His own father’s out of the picture, his hero Cornbread killed, and his uncle in mourning. The other men around that he should be able to look up to — his mother’s boyfriend Charlie, the shopkeeper who is a longtime family friend, and even the police — all fail him.

The film culminates with an emotional courtroom battle, where only the heroism of a few honest men can win the day — and it’s up to a boy to become one of those men. Perhaps the best moment in the film is when Wilford is called up to testify. His mother, knowing the threats and terror that cloud his mind, encourages him with a perfect bullet of truth about how what he chooses to do next will shape his life.

One of the best things about Cornbread, Earl and Me is its incredible cast. Besides Laurence Fishburne in his debut and the aforementioned Rosalind Cash, Moses Gunn, and Bernie Casey, the film has supporting roles from Stack Pierce and Madge Sinclair (Convoy) as Wilford’s aunt and uncle, Thalmus Rasulala (Friday Foster) as Charlie, and of course Antonio Fargas, seemingly the busiest black actor of the 70s, in a typical street hustler role.

Perhaps it’s this cast, heavy with blaxploitation stalwarts, that his given Cornbread, Earl and Me a common association with the genre. Or perhaps it’s the production credit of American International, one of the most prolific names in blaxploitation. Regardless of the reason, like similarly pigeonholed films (see also: Across 110th St, Amazing Grace, Cooley High), I don’t consider that term an accurate representation of what this film is about, as there’s no “exploitative” element here — just straight-up real-life drama from the heart.

The Package

Cornbread, Earl And Me comes to Blu-ray from catalogue powerhouse Olive Films.

Olive’s discs are usually barebones, and while these features are still sparse, it’s pleasing to see that they’ve listened to complaints and have at least included some minimal features: English subtitles and the theatrical trailer in HD.

Special Features and Extras

Theatrical Trailer (2:29)

Verdict: A heartfelt family story led by an incredible performance from a young future Morpheus. Highly recommended.

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 Cornbread, Earl And Me — [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

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