Hollywood Once Told Francis Ford Coppola The Cotton Club Had 'Too Many Black Stories'. Now, He's Restoring Them

The Cotton Club (1984)
Screenshot: Orion Pictures (YouTube )

You know how kids have a list of things they want to be when they grow up and toggle between them until they actually do grow up and (maybe) decide on one thing? Well, for me, one of those things was a tap dancer.

Now, this urge was completely inside of my head, as I never acted on said desires. I never took any tap classes. But, I wanted to be one. Along with Savion Glover’s Sesame Street run, I attributed this desire to one man: Gregory Hines.

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One man and one scene:

The Cotton Club (1984) - Death and Dance - James Remar - Gregory Hines / Orion Pictures (YouTube)

I can vividly remember tiny Tonja spastically tap-dancing all over the kitchen for my imaginary crowd of enthusiastic fans.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the news out of Vanity Fair, where Francis Ford Coppola has announced The Cotton Encore, a restored edition of his 1984 film, The Cotton Club.

Back when the film—starring Hines, his brother Maurice Hines, Nicolas Cage, Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Lonette McKee and more—was set to debut its final cut, Coppola took certain executive financier notes on the film that he has since regretted.

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“It was the story of two families, two brothers. And it was balanced,” Coppola recounted. “So, when we had the note from the financier that there’s too many black people, and I started tampering with the scenes of the African American family, then it became out of balance.”

As Vanity Fair reports:

Coppola spent roughly half a million dollars of his own money to restore the elements he felt pressured to cut from the film’s original theatrical release. The result is The Cotton Club Encore, which adds 24 minutes and deletes 13 from the original cut, to refocus attention on the African American performers who made the real-life Jazz Age nightclub an oasis of song and dance during a desperate time in American history.

This week, Lionsgate announced that it is releasing the Encore version on October 11, with a premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 5. Coppola previously teased the new cut at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival, and now he hopes a wider release will find a new audience—and perhaps feel like a new film altogether.

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“I thought it was crazy. It’s The Cotton Club. Of course there’s black people. The cast is black people!” the 80-year-old acclaimed director added. “But at that time, I was hoping to try to facilitate a meeting of the minds where we could agree. And also, a director is always doubting his project.”

Of course, the truth always manages to come out. It wasn’t so much that it was too much black story fodder, as it was too good.

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“There was some sort of controversy. Gregory and I—our scenes were really wonderful, and they wanted to cut some of our scenes out,” Maurice told VF. “I don’t know who it was. I can’t say—because Richard Gere was wonderful to us, and he was great to work with. So I don’t think it was him. But they said that Gregory and I, our storyline was stronger, and we were stealing the movie—because we not only acted but we danced together. And it was too much.”

Orion Pictures, the distributor for the film, went bankrupt in 1995.

“There are three sides to every story… Yours, mine and the truth and none of us are lying. Memories served differently to everyone,” Robert “Bob” Evans, a film producer involved in the original deal, said in an email statement to VF. “My side is, I was brought up in Harlem as a young man for 10 years. I knew it well. It was an extraordinary canvas for an even more extraordinary film,” Evans wrote. “The Cotton Club Encore will remain one of our country‘s greatest works of cinema. It is a national treasure.”

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Unfortunately, Gregory is not alive to see the remastered version, as he died on August 3, 2003. However, his brother Maurice knows he is up in heaven somewhere “tapping away” in celebration. The Cotton Club Encore will show during the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Oct. 5. For more information, including ticket purchase, head to filmlinc.org.

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About the author

Tonja Renée Stidhum

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.