Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

BLAXPLOITATION MONTH: Hell Up in Harlem (1973)

“Black Caesar” must have been a hit for American International Pictures. The studio made a sequel. Quickly. “Black Caesar” was released in February of 1973. The sequel, “Hell Up in Harlem,” came out in December of 1973. Even in the world of seventies, low budget film making, a turnaround of nine months is staggering. Such an expedited production, somewhat inevitably, produced a sloppier, less nuanced film. While “Hell Up in Harlem” is clearly an inferior sequel, it says a lot about Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson's abilities to entertain that the film is still worth seeing.

Last we saw Tommy Gibbs, he had been abandoned on the far side of town, a gunshot wound in his gut bringing his life to an end, the gangster lifestyle he had built torn apart. He quickly calls his father and a trio of loyal enforcers, who take Tommy to a hospital and save his life. Recuperating, Tommy sets his sights on two goals. He goes about rebuilding his criminal empire on the West Coast. Secondly, he decides to take revenge on the men and women who nearly ended his life. While Gibbs find success in this location, treachery inside his own circle threatens to bring it all down again.

While “Black Caesar” didn't kill off its antihero, Tommy Gibbs' story was more-or-less over. The sequel goes about awkwardly retconning this conclusion. His life is saved and all it took was reconnecting with the father he swore he would never talk to again. Papa Gibbs, played by a returning Julius Harris, is quickly rewritten from being a normal person to someone just as criminally inclined as his son. Tommy Gibbs getting a second chance essentially undoes the original film's entire point. Your self-destructive, villain protagonist can't very well have a “rise and fall” story if there's an extended “rise again” coda.

Of course, “Hell Up in Harlem” mostly does away with the tragic aspect of its main character. Instead of being a morally ambiguous gangster, brought down by his power hungry ways and disturbing attitudes towards women, Tommy is re-imagined as a bad-ass action hero. Gibbs' role as a criminal, exploiting his own neighborhood, is mentioned but ultimately brushed aside. Tommy justifies his action by refusing to deal drugs, a position the sequel seemingly agrees with. Throughout his new adventure, he gains a son, a new girlfriend, something like a new family, and successfully rises against all his enemies. That he does this at the expense of his previous girlfriend – who is forced into prostitution before being murdered – isn't criticized, adding an unsightly streak of sexism to the film.

The script is disappointing but “Hell Up in Harlem” does pile on the ridiculous action scene. The first really impressive sequence has Fred Williamson and his gang, clad in scuba gear, sneaking into the enemy gangster's compound. What starts out as a machine gun massacre ends with Gibbs battling a karate chopping female bodyguard in a bikini! The action builds from there. One memorable scene has Tommy sniping an enemy from a Times Square tower. Another has the black hero fighting a steam shovel... And winning. The film's proper conclusion is a tense chase scene inside an airport, Williamson trying to make it to his plane before his enemy can. This ends with a close-quarters fight on the plane. This is somewhat awkwardly choreographed but in a charming way.

As in “Black Caesar,” the film ends with its black hero using racist iconography against the white villain. However, the ending – which gives Tommy a heroic send-off – lacks all of the original's power. Also like the first film, the sequel barely acknowledges the period setting, looking more and more like a story in the modern day. Tommy Gibbs' second adventure doesn't have nearly as memorable a soundtrack as the first. Edwin Starr's theme is okay but it can't compare to the Godfather of Soul. “Hell Up in Harlem” comes off as the quickie sequel that it undoubtedly is. Most of what was powerful about the original is ejected in favor of typical action movie shenanigans. Still, watching Fred Williamson be an unflappable bad-ass remains highly entertaining. You can't deny that. [6/10]

[X] Afros or Sideburns
[X] Brothels or Pimps
[X] Churches or Pastors
[X] Funky Soundtrack
[] Homophobic Caricatures
[X] Inner-City Setting
[] Night Club Act
[X] Plot Involving Drugs or Organized Crime
[X] Racist Authority Figures
[X] Sticking It to the Man
[X] Sweet Love Makin'
[X] Use of Street Slang

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