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HELL UP IN HARLEM (director/writer/producer: Larry Cohen; cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton; editors: Franco Guerri/Peter Honess; music: Fonce Mizell/Freddie Perren; cast: Fred Williamson (Tommy Gibbs), Julius W. Harris (Papa Gibbs), Gloria Hendry (Helen Bradley), Margaret Avery (Sister Jennifer ), D’Urville Martin (Reverend Rufus), Gerald Gordon (DiAngelo), Tony King (Zack); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: R; AIP; 1973)
Lives up to its intentions of being an exploitation film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Larry Cohen directs and scripts this sequel to Black Caesar with ambivalence. It’s a blaxploitation film, popular for a time with some urban minorities during the early 1970s. Cohen brings his brand of irony to the convention, causing some tension but hardly lifting the film off the gutter. It was mostly white filmmakers who shot these films, turning the old movie derogatory stereotypes of blacks as Uncle Tom-like servants into new derogatory movie stereotypes of blacks as venal wiseguy crime kingpins. Complaints by black activists all be put a halt to these films.

“Harlem” picks up at the conclusion of the first version, after a foiled assassination attempt on the Black Caesar, Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson). Gibbs is in possession of documents listing payouts to corrupt New York City officials, and escapes from the cops and obtains medical attention at Harlem Hospital at gunpoint with the help of his gang.

While he’s on the mend, Gibbs prevails upon his father “Papa” Gibbs (Julius W. Harris) to blackmail District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) into dropping all criminal charges pending against him. The corrupt DiAngelo responds by getting his cronies to throw Papa Gibbs from a building roof, but that fails and Papa goes on to ably run the crime business while his son continues to recover. But there seems to be an Oedipal problem in the horizon, as relations between father and son take a turn for the worse when Papa has Tommy’s former squeeze Helen (Gloria Hendry) bumped off. She was earlier on harassed by the white official, DiAngelo, who groped her. Tommy will then branch out to Los Angeles with his fresh squeeze Jennifer (Margaret Avery), as he leaves the Harlem operation for Papa to run.

The frenetic pace is filled with mucho gunplay and vulgar scenes that are used as sources of low-brow social awareness comedy, such as black maids shoving soul food down the pipes of mafioso figures. The Black Caesar is pissed at the honky police and the mafia for exploiting the black neighborhood, and bringing in drugs to the community. So he shoots ’em, hangs ’em, beats ’em to death. I lost count of how many he killed. Oh, by the way, the Black Caesar is supposedly only doing what organized crime does. Hey, he even gives money to the black church just as readily as the mafia does to their white church.

After trusted crime family member Zack (Tony King) schemes to betray the Gibbs family, the bloodbath takes on greater dimensions as it reaches both coasts. It leads to an unsatisfying ending that answers nothing, as the episodic story itself never becomes credible. The film lives up to its intentions of being an exploitation film. When I saw it originally at a theater with a mostly young black audience, the film was meet with howls of great delight and I could plainly see the film was reaching for a different target audience than film critics concerned with how poorly developed it all was. It hypocritically feeds off the inner city anger to come up with such a violent film, one that exploits the black community by suggesting that is the only way to make progress in America.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”