Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Rating: **
Alternate Title: Black Caesar 2
Review Date: 4/7/19
Director: Larry Cohen
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Julius Harris, Margaret Avery, Gerald Gordon, cameo by Mindi Miller

It's odd that "Black Caesar" (1973) would spawn a sequel, especially since the main character gets shot and beaten to death at the end. But anything is possible in the movies, right? The film opens right where "Black Caesar" ends, with Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) getting attacked and shot, only this time he manages to escape in a passing taxi cab. After eluding the bad guys, the bleeding and nearly dead Tommy calls his father (Julius Harris) for help, and a bunch of armed gangsters rush him to the hospital. The police allow the gangsters to leave in exchange for releasing their hostages unharmed. After recovering, Papa Gibbs gets a slice of Tommy's organization while Tommy goes about getting revenge on the people who tried to kill him. He also wants to clean up the streets by killing all of the drug dealers and gutter trash. A young religious woman named Jennifer (beautiful Margaret Avery) disagrees with his violent methods and gives him a good scolding, but after he gives her $5000, she changes her mind about him and decides to have sex with him. Okay... Unfortunately, there are members of Tommy's group that attempt to undermine his power, which leads to a falling out with his family and ever-escalating gang warfare on the streets of New York City. Ultimately, Tommy leaves Jennifer and goes into hiding with one of his "adopted" sons. What happened to the other son is a complete mystery.

The film is a complete narrative mess and makes no sense at all. This is probably because director Larry Cohen started shooting it without a script and made it up as he went. It's a rough, angry, and ugly film that's boiling over with racial tension and societal frustration. The action scenes are exciting and plentiful, and seem to be the only reason the film exists. The charismatic and athletic Fred Williamson makes an impressive and imposing figure who is always impeccably dressed and more than capable of fighting his way out of any situation. Julius Harris is delightful as Tommy's father, although he breaks character and goes completely bonkers towards the end as a violent and decadent gang leader. Margaret Avery is stunning, while Gloria Hendry plays a thankless role as Tommy's ex-wife who becomes a down-on-her-luck prostitute. Mindi Miller makes an amusing cameo as a karate-kicking bikini babe who comes out of nowhere at one of the villain's strongholds. Gerald Gordon makes an excellent villain as the corrupt District Attorney on the New York City police force, and perfectly personifies "The Man."

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of "kill whitey" undertones in the film, and Gibbs does a lot of killing. Blood flows everywhere, and one of the most outrageous scenes is on the beach at Coney Island, where Tommy skewers a bad guy with a beach umbrella and bright red animated blood comes gushing out. It's hilariously awful, but I appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. The social commentary from the original film is dropped in favor of brutal and gratuitous violence, and the film is little more than a series of edgy action set pieces haphazardly strung together. That arguably makes the film more entertaining to watch, but it also makes the weak plot difficult to follow. Continuity is also a problem, since Williamson filmed most of his scenes in Los Angeles, while the main production was shot in New York. For blaxploitation fans only.