I often forget just how long Laurence Fishburne has been in the movie business. He just seems to show up unexpectedly in movies I’m watching. A few weeks ago I sat down with Death Wish II, which is pretty much just a retread of Death Wish one, and there was Fishburne as one of the bad guys making life tough for Charles Bronson. Our film today is actually Fishburne’s feature film debut, in which he’s credited as Laurence Fishburne III. It’s a film with a story that could’ve been ripped right out of today’s headlines, 1975’s Cornbread, Earl and Me.
The film takes place in an urban neighborhood where a recent high school grad nicknamed Cornbread (Jamaal Wilkes) is a star basketball player due to head off to play college ball in a few weeks. He’s the first kid from the neighborhood to achieve such success and the younger kids of the neighborhood idolize him, including Wilford (Fishburne) and Earl (Tierre Turner). Tragedy strikes, however, when Cornbread ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is mistaken by two cops (Bernie Casey and Vince Martorano) for a suspect who fled after shooting a woman. Cornbread is gunned down in the street in front of Wilford, Earl, and a few other witnesses.
Cornbread’s parents (Madge Sinclair and Stack Pierce) are determined to get justice for their son. They hire a lawyer (Moses Gunn) who soon learns that the city and the police are doing everything they can to intimidate witnesses and sweep the incident under the rug. Cops even come to Wilford’s house to threaten him and his mother. The young man is determined, though, to do the right thing and stand up for his deceased friend.
I admit, I had no idea what this film was about until I started watching it. Given recent events, though, it couldn’t be a more appropriate film to look at. In this particular story, the incident that sets the story in motion is not so much racially motivated as it is a case of mistaken identity. Two officers are involved in the shooting, one is white but one is black. Still, it’s a terrible incident and the lengths that the powers that be go to in order to protect themselves is sickening. Tragedy turns into something very moving, however, as the story focuses on a young boy who looks at things in a very simple way…there’s what’s right and there’s what’s wrong. He’s going to do what’s right. If more people looked at life the way Wilfred does the world would be a much better place.
Laurence Fishburne would’ve been about fourteen years old at the time he made this film and his performance is nothing short of remarkable. He brings a maturity and honesty to Wilfred which is far beyond what I would’ve thought possible for most young actors. Fishburne has several complex sequences with the likes of Moses Gunn and Rosalind Cash (who plays his mother). He more than holds his own, he steals every scene. That’s not to diminish the contribution of the rest of the cast. Gunn, Cash, Sinclair, Casey, and Pierce all turn in excellent performances. We even get a brief appearance by Huggy Bear himself, Antonio Fargas, as local numbers runner named One Eye.
Believe it or not, this hard-hitting drama was released by American International Pictures…the folks best known for Frankie & Annette beach party films and Roger Corman monster movies. There are some who label this as a blaxploitation film, probably because it was released in the mid 70’s, at the height of that genre’s popularity. I don’t think that’s a fair description of the film, though. Only one sequence, where the neighborhood people violently attack the two cops immediately after the shooting, flirts with some of the traits of a blaxploitation film. Ultimateley, the film is a heartfelt drama that is just a relevant as it ever was.
Note: Cornbread, Earl and Me was just released on DVD and Blu Ray by Olive Films. Thanks to them for providing us with a copy to review.