(1975)3Mark DemingAmerican International Pictures cranked out some of the most action-packed and hard-hitting movies of the 1970s blaxploitation era, and after producing a fistful of violent revenge dramas like Slaughter, Black Caesar and Coffy, the company decided to take a chance on a more positive and emotionally resonant African-American picture with Cornbread, Earl and Me. Set in Chicago in the 1970s, the movie doesn't shrink from the facts of life in the ghetto -- crime, drugs, broken homes -- but also affirms that strong and caring families can be found there and people can rise above their circumstances though talent and hard work. Unfortunately, one young man who has the ability to make something of himself is accidentally gunned down by police who are willing to go to almost any lengths to avoid taking responsibility for their mistake, causing a few people in the neighborhood to lose their courage under the threat of corrupt police officials. Cornbread, Earl and Me is certainly a more thoughtful and compassionate film than most of the small-studio projects that emerged from the blaxploitation cycle, so it's a shame that for all its good intentions its not an especially good film. Joe Manduke's direction is a bit sluggish and poorly paced, and his script (adapted from Ronald Fair's novel Hog Butcher) is curiously one-dimensional, painting every cop as a racist thug looking to bury their own mistakes (even the black cops on display are filled with loathing for their own people) and populating the neighborhood with standard-issue stock characters who are one step removed from stock clichés, from the cranky but good-hearted shopkeeper to the pimp-suited numbers runner. Fourteen-year-old Lawrence Fishburne had to carry much of the picture as Wilford Robinson, and he wasn't yet up to the challenge -- it was his first film, and while he's not bad, his inexperience shows at the most awkward times. And while Keith Wilkes (who as Jamaal Wilkes became an NBA star with the Los Angeles Lakers) shows impressive skills on the basketball court, the man was no actor and his performance as Cornbread is pleasant but ultimately amateurish, not giving us much reason to care about a young man who plays a crucial role in the story. Moses Gunn is excellent as an attorney determined to make the police admit their wrongdoing and Rosalind Cash and Madge Sinclair are quite good as women struggling with tragedies, but they don't quite compensate for the film's many flaws. Cornbread, Earl and Me has its heart in the right place, but its virtues are outweighed by its faults, and ultimately this story deserved better treatment than it gets here.
Cornbread (Keith Wilkes) is an African-American youth who strives to escape his ghetto surroundings. He does so by becoming a high school basketball star--and the idol of the other youngsters in his community. On the verge of starting college on a scholarship, Cornbread is mistakenly killed by a police officer. Keith Wilkes, who plays the title role, was in real life an all-American at UCLA. Cornbread, Earl and Me, which was based upon Ronald Fair's novel Hog Butcher, marked the big screen debut of Laurence Fishburne.