In the early ‘70s, a genre emerged that catered to an audience often ignored in cinema. Commonly known as Blaxploitation, movies like Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song gave a voice to the voiceless, a form of cinematic escapism where strong, capable black people could be the heroes instead of window dressing on the periphery of white people’s boring-ass stories. One of the stars to emerge from Blaxploitation was Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, a former football star who found a second career as a leading man.
One of the genre’s classics is Black Caesar (also known in some markets as The Godfather of Harlem), which was written and directed by Larry Cohen and featured a blistering soundtrack by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. Released in 1973, Black Caesar was a hit with its race-flipping take on the gangster classic Little Caesar. Despite the film’s ending which seemed to indicate that Tommy Gibbs (Williamson) had met a grisly fate in front of Tiffany’s on 5th Street in New York City, a sequel would pick up right where the first one ended and would be released in the same year. Now that sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, is finally available on Blu-ray from the good people at Olive Films. While certainly inferior to its predecessor, Hell Up in Harlem is a still a fun piece of Blaxploitation filmmaking, continuing the genre’s trend of strong black leads and stories concerned with social issues that were ignored in other aspects of filmed media.
Cohen’s film wastes no time in getting the story moving, with Tommy Gibbs bleeding after an assassination attempt by his rival DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon), a corrupt district attorney who wants to seize control of the drug trade. Tommy is able to escape and heal, though he and his father Papa Gibbs (Julius Harris) are soon to be engaged in a turf war despite Tommy’s wishes that the family business exit the drug trade. Things take a dark turn when Helen (Gloria Hendry), Tommy’s ex-wife and the mother of his son, is murdered by Zach (Tony King), Papa King’s hitman. These events lead to a falling out between the father and son crime duo. However, Zach was working with DiAngelo and has orchestrated this falling out, and soon Tommy Gibbs, who has left Harlem, will return to his hometown and raise all sorts of hell on his quest for vengeance.
So much of the joy within Hell Up in Harlem comes when Tommy Gibbs is carrying out his quest for vengeance against those who’ve done him wrong. After healing from his wounds from the conclusion of the first film, Tommy takes on those who set him up for assassination, including one wild sequence where he and an army of collaborators seize a beachside mansion, forcing their foes to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at gunpoint. It’s added an extra twist with the home’s black staff of maids also in on the violent siege. Towards the end, Tommy becomes a one-man wrecking crew, staging various hits in public places. If there’s one thing that the genre of Blaxploitation mastered, it was catharsis. Anti-heroes taking up arms exerting bloody revenge against their oppressors always providing a certain level of thrills, something that Quentin Tarantino has had no problem utilizing in his own later films.
Nothing against the musical compositions of Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren and performed by Edwin Starr, but they’re not James Brown. As Larry Cohen told me earlier this year, a legal dispute between James Brown and Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of American International Pictures, over the soundtrack for Slaughter’s Big Score prevented the Godfather of Soul from reprising his role as creating the film’s soundtrack. Sadly, the music that James Brown had made with Hell Up in Harlem in mind would end up being one of his most memorable albums, The Payback, which is frequently used in movies to this day.
The Olive Films edition of Hell Up in Harlem features a brand new audio commentary track from the film’s writer, producer, and director Larry Cohen. The genre master is known for his honesty when talking about his work and the stories behind the scenes and this is no different. The only other special feature available on the disc is the film’s original trailer, which is a work of art in and of itself.
Hell Up in Harlem is a lean, mean work of Blaxploitation that may not stand as one of the genre’s high water marks but still entertains to this day thanks to the natural charms of Fred Williamson and the brazen instincts of Larry Cohen. It’s a film that works right off its predecessor and wastes no time in telling its violent story of retribution in the seedy underworld of Harlem. This is one of the few times you could look at a movie and accurately say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”