Sunday, December 10, 2017

Hell Up in Harlem (Larry Cohen, 1973)

This film recaps the end of its predecessor, Black Caesar, with Harlem gangster Tommy Gibbs (blaxploitation icon Fred Williamson) being betrayed by his ex-wife Helen Bradley (Black Belt Jones' Gloria Hendry) to the corrupt district attorney, DiAngelo (The Doctors' Gerald Gordon), who has him shot. After a high speed chase to evade more of DiAngelo's men, Tommy retrieves ledgers he has compiled on corrupt cops and calls his estranged father, Thomas Gibbs Sr. (Super Fly's Julius W. Harris) to help him. The elder Gibbs and some of Tommy's men take him to the hospital, where they take the staff and patients hostage, having a doctor extract the bullet from Tommy's chest and arranging with DiAngelo for safe passage out. As he recovers, Tommy makes his father his partner in the "business," to the chagrin of his ambitious underling Zach (Cannibal Holocaust's Tony King). Seeking revenge for his shooting, Tommy has Helen's children from a previous marriage taken from her to raise as his own, and goes after his rivals with a vengeance, finally getting DiAngelo to drop all charges against him. He also reconnects with Reverend Rufus (Dolemite's D'Urville Martin), a former pimp in his employ who is now leading a crusade against his criminal activities, and becomes attracted to his disciple Sister Jennifer (The Color Purple's Margaret Avery). Three years later, Tommy's operation is thriving, he is engaged to Jennifer, and he is very close to Helen's son Jason. Unfortunately, Zach strangles Helen, who has been reduced to prostitution. DiAngelo, working with Zach to take over Tommy's territory convinces Tommy his father killed her, driving a rift between Gibbs Sr. and Jr., who moves to California with his family, leaving his father in charge of operations. While Gibbs Sr. ("Big Poppa") takes to being a mob boss with gusto, he finds himself in a confrontation with DiAngelo and Zach that leads to Tommy seeking vengeance.

Larry Cohen's Black Caesar is one of my all-time favorite blaxploitation films, and its sequel is just as excellent. Director Larry Cohen's script manages to inject the occasional bit of humor into a fairly heavy plot, like when Tommy has some Mafia guys he's holding hostage served soul food, including pork butts, collard greens, and for dessert, watermelon. There's also the amazing scene where Tommy kills one of DiAngelo's men at the beach by ramming a sharpened umbrella stick through his chest, although considering he was lying on a towel with the Confederate flag on it at the time, it's hard for me to feel bad for the guy. Fred Williamson, as ever, is the definition of cool, and wears some truly stylish outfits. Julius W. Harris does pretty well in that department as well, and his struggle to reconnect with his son is touching in a way, making his final fate all the more tragic. Gloria Hendry's Helen is not the asskicker Sydney in Black Belt Jones was, but she is a well-rounded character, torn between her feelings for Tommy and her disgust with his actions and the way he treats her, even wanting to die. DiAngelo is another of the genre's many slimy racist white politicians (art imitating life?), and Gerald Gordon does a great job conveying what a piece of shit he is. Tony King portrays the power-hungry and arrogant Zach with aplomb. The soundtrack by Edwin Starr of "War" fame for Motown is awesome, in its own way even better than James Brown's work on the first film in my opinion, and that's no small praise. And of course there's also lots of great action scenes and bloodshed, from Tommy's gunshot to his ironic punishment for DiAngelo. A must-view!

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