28 For 28: Day 6, Godfrey Cambridge

Godfrey Cambridge found his groove as Gravedigger Jones, the cop who just won’t take no stuff from nobody, and simply has no love for the criminal set. The comedian turned actor might have had his biggest impact in Melvin Van Peebles’s Watermelon Man in 1970.

Just as everyone doing a William Shatner impression is really just doing an impression of Kevin Pollack doing his Shatner impression, those doing Impressions of “white guys” are usually someone doing an impression of Godfrey Cambridge doing his white guy impression. Cambridge and Van Peebles put together a satire of the differences of being black and being white that was as entertaining as it was informative.

Cambridge died in 1976, which just happened to be about the time the blaxploitation trend started to putter out of existence too. Did one thing have an impact on the other? We like to believe it did. Godfrey Cambridge went out way too soon.


Why We Love and Respect Him: We love he had the balls to be the black man in white face in a studio released film during an era when race relations was a highly-charged issue that resulted in violence from time to time. It wasn’t a flattering portrayal. We also love his 5-second appearance in FIve on the Black Hand Side for being such a bold wedging of a star into a film just to use him in the marketing.

Best Known For: being Gravedigger Jones, the cop on the hunt for a bale of cotton in Harlem..

Blaxploitation Role Call:

Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) as Gravedigger Jones, Cop: Gravedigger and his pal Coffin Ed are determined to find a $90,000 bale of cotton in Harlem that’s gone missing, expose a popular activist/reverend’s go-back-to-Africa movement a scam, and then throw the crooked clergyman into the klink with the hot cash in their cool hands.

Bale of cotton? In Harlem?


Watermelon Man (1970) as Jeff Gerber, white man turned black man: An angry white man wakes up black one morning and suddenly everything in his life begins to fall apart. This was Melvin Van Peebles’s final studio film. He was reportedly offered a multi-film deal by the studio, but he told them to go eat one and made Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadaasss Song on his own. Some of that F-you vibe found in Sweetback can also be sensed in Watermelon Man.

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972) as Gravedigger Jones, Cop: This is the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem, only this time Gravedigger and Coffin face off against a murderous gangster who was believed dead for decades.


Friday Foster (1975) as Ford Malotte, the hot girl’s gay friend: Ford Malotte is one of Friday Foster’s allies as she sets out to thwart a plot to kill black political leaders. Friday is both Cambridge and Pam Grier’s final movie with AI. Pam went on to make movies for other people, and Godfrey went on to the other side . He died in 1976.

Bio Links:

Godfrey Cambridge appears in Five on the Black Hand Side just so the studio can put his name in the promotional materials.

Godfrey Cambridge Defines Kindness, And How He Spreads It Around

Firing Line with William F. Buckley

Godfrey Cambridge on Drugs: You just don’t see PSAs like ths one any more. Cabridge said pharmaceutical companies were out of hand, way back in 70s.

Too bad he didn’t live long enough to see Medicare Part D turn billion-dollar profit drug companies into multi-billion-dollar-profit companies.

Beyond the Black Macho: Queer Blaxploitation; published in The Velvet Light Trap, 2004

Ford Malotte’s gayness was unusual.

Although gay and lesbian characters were increasingly visible in seventies American cinema, they were rarely (if ever) part of a film’s marketing strategy, especially when the film was not meant for a gay audience. In the poster for Friday Foster, though, Godfrey Cambridge’s Ford Malotte is given an equivalent position alongside other supporting players such as Eartha Kitt and Yaphet Kotto.