Film Review: Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Regardless of the medium they work in, it is always important that an artist knows when to stop. Unfortunately, most filmmakers typically take insightful adages (such as less being more) and viciously throw them out the window when they latch onto a viable (and profitable) character or premise. Such is the case with the 1973 Blaxploitation film Hell Up In Harlem, a confounding, redundant sequel to the great film Black Caesar.

Hell Up In Harlem again focuses on Tommy Gibbs, played with undeniable authority by Fred Williamson. While the premise of the story runs completely contradictory to the ending of Black Caesar – which has undoubtedly one of the best endings in Blaxploitation cinema, if not all of cinema – the film does possess a marginal level of social worth. Of course, this focus is superficial when compared with its predecessor, which mined the best tropes from its respective canon to deliver a compelling examination on early-70s race relations. This sequel is much more narrow in focus, eventually descending into little more than a barrage of energetic albeit vapid action sequences.

When we catch up with our good friend, Mr. Gibbs, he is in dire straights. As in the finale of Black Caesar, a hit has been put out on the charismatic gangster, which soon leads to a frenzied chase through the gritty streets of 1970s Manhattan. Hell Up In Harlem is basically a “What If?” take on the ending of that film. It seeks to answer what would have happened if Tommy Gibbs had survived those events, or avoided being consumed by his own avarice.

Far more pedestrian in scope (not to mention lacking in thematic weight), Hell Up In Harlem is basically just a continuation of Gibb’s attempt to assert his influence over the various judicial and economic structures of New York City. Marvelously cynical in its perspective on organized power dynamics, the story falls succinctly into the established paradigm of its genre, bristling with rage and rife with racial epithets.

The actual plot points however are more difficult to determine than they were in Black Caesar. While that film offered cohesive, fairly realistic (if somewhat traditional) plotting, Hell Up In Harlem is more of an absurdist character piece. Certain characters – who in Black Caesar existed only on the periphery of the story – have greater predominance here. One of these is Julius Harris’s Papa Gibbs, who goes from a dithering old coot to a knuckle-cracking mafioso in the blink of an eye. Coen splits his time between the two Gibbs men in the sequel, following both of them as they join forces against “whitey” and fend off usurpers within their own organization.

Hell Up In Harlem

Hell Up In Harlem offers the same sort of sprawling narrative seen in the original film, only marred with less insightful social commentary, and dominated by action sequences that could have come straight out of a Roger Moore 007 vehicle. Undoubtedly, the most wild moments involve a beachfront assault perpetrated by Gibbs and his men, which features harpoon guns, and outrageously athletic shots of Williamson kicking women in the face.

Coen’s trademark style of handheld camerawork and kinetic editing gives this sequence an undeniable rawness. However, the general efficacy of his technique is hit or miss throughout the film as a whole. It works well enough in scenes such as the opening hit job and the previously described assault, but other moments – such as when Williamson attacks a thug on a beach with a pointed umbrella – have a feeling of grave incoherence.

These scatter-shot aesthetics are nothing however when compared to what’s lacking in character development and storytelling. Taking place over a span of three years, Hell Up In Harlem’s plot can only be described as lackadaisical or torpid. Despite its nearly non-stop violent character, the story seems to often move slower than molasses down a hill, with little gravity attached to any of the events. Even worse, characters drift in and out without registering. Chief among them is Gibb’s poor ex-wife Helen (Gloria Henry), whose melodramatic entrance and exit within the film dramatically affects everyone but the audience. There is a marginal degree of philosophical tension evoked through the dynamic between Gibbs and Reverend Rufus (D’Urville Martin), but this drama is quickly diffused as the Reverend trades in his bible for hand cannon and joins the fray.

Despite all of this, Hell Up In Harlem is not a complete lost cause. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and the charm of the piece is certainly there (especially when snatches of Edwin Starr’s title song are heard). It’s also hard to deny the imposing weight of Williamson in the lead role, despite the fact that the material he’s working with is largely  inferior to Black Caesar. Yet, because these goofy pleasures are not tempered with thematic substance, its hard to label the film as anything but a minor entry to the genre. While Coen the sociologist is not entirely absent (particularly during a shrewd shot featuring Gibbs icing a white pusher on a Abe Lincoln statue), his sequel is hardly communicative about its period. Even more unfortunate is what it does to its main character, who transitions from being a symbol of racial strife to little more than a thug with a gun.

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