Hell Up in Harlem

| September 1, 2017

Larry Cohen’s Black Caesar was a surprise box-office hit for American International Pictures, helping to establish Fred Williamson as a bonafide superstar. Williamson had starred in a couple of films in 1972 (The Legend of Nigger Charley and Hammer, both featuring characters he would reprise in later films), but his role as Tommy Gibbs in Black Caesar was a turning point. After the film’s spectacular opening in February of 1973, AIP tapped Cohen to rush a sequel into production as quickly as possible. True to form, he delivered: Hell Up in Harlem hit New York theaters in December of 1973. An impressive feat to be sure, but the rushed nature of the project is fairly obvious from the final product.

Tommy Gibbs (Williamson) manages to get a call out to his father Papa Gibbs (Julius Harris) to help him out following the events at the end of Black Caesar. They stash the ledgers that helped launch Tommy to the top of the New York underworld and stage an elaborate siege at the Harlem Hospital emergency room to save Tommy’s life. Once he’s back in fighting shape, Tommy gets back to business with Papa as his new right-hand man. Despite his insistence that he’d never even seen a man shot before he helped Tommy, Papa takes to the gangster life swimmingly. Tommy, Papa, and their main enforcer Zach (Tony King) strike fear into the hearts of crooked cops, politicians, and mob rivals alike. Utterly ruthless, Papa even takes the children away from Tommy’s ex-girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry) so he, Tommy, and Tommy’s new girlfriend Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery) can raise them as their own. But trouble is brewing: Zach is a little too ambitious, and District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) is sick of Tommy putting the screws to him. It’s only a matter of time before this powder kegs blows, but will it finally take Tommy with it?

As a sequel to Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem is a disaster. The first film had some “action movie” touches, but it was mostly an observant character study that played more like a 1970s updating of Little Caesar or White Heat than a typical Shaft knock-off. All that basically goes out the window the second its sequel begins: Cohen packs the early hospital standoff with gritty, palpable tension, but the film quickly moves into completely ridiculous territory shortly thereafter. A sneak attack from sea on a mob compound seemingly occurs days after Tommy’s surgery, and Papa’s transition from meek traveling salesman to Tommy gun-toting gangster is extremely sudden and wildly implausible as well. The film as a whole feels very much like it was being made up as the production went along. This leads to some slower patches, but also results in some wild invention such as the airport chase near the end of the film, which is so outrageous it basically makes the whole movie worth watching.

So as a “blaxploitation” action movie, Hell Up in Harlem is entertaining enough. The difference between the two films is somewhat similar to that between Jack Hill’s Coffy and Foxy Brown films starring Pam Grier: Hill intended Foxy Brown to be something of a parody of the blaxploitation cycle in general and Coffy in particular (its working title was Burn, Coffy, Burn), but its cartoonish action instead proved to be exactly what audiences wanted. Hell Up in Harlem occasionally feels like a goof as well, which is somewhat disappointing given how great Black Caesar is. However, it’s tough to get too upset about the inevitabilities of the movie business, and if Black Caesar had to have a sequel at least it reunited that film’s principal collaborators and it looks like they had a great time making it. They’re both notable films for very different reasons, and well worth a look. But to get the maximum enjoyment from each, don’t watch them as a double feature.

Olive Films released Hell Up in Harlem on Blu-ray on 29 August 2017. Special features include the film’s original theatrical trailer and a full-length commentary with Larry Cohen and Steve Mitchell, director of the upcoming documentary King Cohen.

About the Author:

Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He is author of "The Unrepentant Cinephile," and a regular contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly as well as a member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. He is co-director of the Chicago Cinema Society and proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's "Guru, the Mad Monk." Follow his long-form film writing on Medium: www.medium.com/@rabbitroom
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