HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973) — The Tonally Bonkers Sequel to BLACK CAESAR

The Godfather of Harlem returns to Blu-ray from Olive Films

Hell Up In Harlem is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.

*This sequel review contains mild spoilers of the preceding film Black Caesar.

To demonstrate how quickly things could move at the low-budget, independent world of AIP, Larry Cohen’s blaxploitation crime epic Black Caesar released less than a year after its inspiration, The Godfather. Its sequel Hell Up In Harlem followed within the same calendar year.

Black Caesar chronicled the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) from victim, to victor, to villain. His aggressive ambition in the face of racial injustice makes it easy to root for him as he starts to rise to power in Harlem, but the tone changes as he turns embraces greed and murder as a criminal kingpin. It’s a mean-spirited film that goes to very dark places (including a rape), and only works because of its key character arc: Tommy becomes an irredeemable monster. In the end, the universe’s justice is meted out, and he’s left for dead by his enemies.

It’s not a film that needed or could benefit from a sequel, and its tone and finality ensured that when one did materialize, its was necessarily ludicrous. And make no mistake, despite sharing the director and many returning cast members, Hell Up In Harlem is an exceptionally weird and very different film, starting from a place where Tommy is the protagonist again despite by this point having been outed as the bad guy. As Cohen notes in the commentary, he was writing the script on the fly as they made the film, and this freewheeling style clearly also had an effect on the final product’s hectic quality.

Its opening title sequence is a replay of the prior film’s climax, continuing the story as Tommy, near death, calls his estranged father (whom he shunned in the prior film) to help him. Papa Gibbs (the incredible Julius Harris, best known as a hook-handed henchman Tee Hee in Live and Let Die) answers the call, and soon becomes a key member of the gang, quickly acclimating to the criminal lifestyle and becoming Tommy’s most trusted man and second-in-command, much to the dismay of other members like previous #2 man, Zach.

Hell Up In Harlem is mostly about the power struggle within the gang as Tommy tries to rebuild his life with a new wife (a kind-hearted beauty who is clearly way too good for him), eventually turning into a one-man war against the gangs of New York, but there’s nobody to root for. Tommy continues to be a demonstrably evil protagonist, most notably in taking revenge on his ex-wife Helen (Gloria Hendry) for turning against him by stealing her children. (Apparently raping her in the last movie wasn’t punishment enough).

On a superficial level, the movie is quite fun and has a terrific soundtrack, a biting sense of humor, and some killer action including a fight on an airport baggage conveyor, but the awfulness of its main character makes it impossible to embrace. It actually works better if you forget or ignore the meaningful narrative and character arcs of the first movie and just bask in the gritty action.

The Package

Hell Up In Harlem is newly released on Blu-ray from Olive Films, where it joins Black Caesar and several other blaxploitation films formerly part of MGM’s Soul Cinema DVD line.

Special Features and Extras

A noteworthy step up from Olive’s barebones reputation, Hell Up In Harlem delivers on several of the things collectors have often asked for: subtitles, a trailer, and director commentary.

Audio Commentary

Director Larry Cohen is joined by Steve Mitchell, director of King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. This is a terrific and informative discussion between the director and a leading subject matter expert. Cohen remembers the production really well and elaborates on all kinds of questions from Mitchell. My favorite takeaways were that the film (including public scenes with guns at Central Park, Times Square, and all over an airport) was shot guerrilla style on location with no regard for permits, and that Williamson refused to do several of the film’s stunts until Cohen performed them first.

Theatrical Trailer (2:09)

English subtitles
The subtitles are presented in all-caps.

Parting Thoughts:

A very different film from its predecessor, Hell Up In Harlem continues its mean streak and mixture of action and dark comedy, but this time asks you to root for the bad guy — and in this only partially succeeds. It should be seen by blaxploitation fans, but lacks (and arguably dismantles) the moral weight of Black Caesar.

A/V Out.

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.


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