Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Julius Harris, Margaret Avery, Gloria Hendry and D’Urville Martin
Written by: Larry Cohen
Runtime: 95 minutes
Release Date: December 16, 1973
Home Video Release:  Olive Films, August 2017, Blu-ray

The trailer exclaims “He may never get to heaven, but he’s raisin’ hell up in Harlem!” as violence tears across the screen, showcasing Fred Williamson’s kinetic and charismatic presence.   HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973) follows director Larry Cohen’s excellent BLACK CAESAR (1973) and continues the story of ambitious gangster Tommy Gibbs (Williamson).

Picking up immediately where BLACK CAESAR ended, Gibbs’ life hangs by a thread after a lowly street gang attacks him in his weakened bullet-ridden state after that film’s final confrontation. Tommy calls upon his father Papa Gibbs (Harris) to secure an infamous ledger documenting the corruption of prominent government officials before getting medical assistance to recover from his dire circumstances.

Gibbs must recuperate before seeking revenge against New York District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) who was instrumental in setting up the ineffective assassination against him in an attempt to secure the illicit drug trade in Harlem.  Gibbs must also rebuild his organized crime kingdom as the mafia, disloyal gang members, and crooked cops have moved in on his territory during his absence.

Tommy’s near-death experience has also tempered his drive for criminal activity and elevated a desire for redemption.  In the process of reestablishing his empire, Tommy interacts with many key people in his life who have also changed.  Former pimp and con man Rufus (Martin) fully embraces his calling as a minister, disavowing his long term friendship with Tommy.  After her crushing betrayal, Gibbs’ former love Helen Bradley (Hendry) works as a prostitute to support her young children – a situation that Gibbs enforces as penance for her sins.  Papa Gibbs embraces the role of Tommy’s right hand man, taking over the New York operations when Tommy leaves for Los Angeles with Sister Jennifer (Avery), the woman he seduced away from Rufus’ congregation.

Of course it all falls apart from devious manipulations attacking from inside and outside his organization as determined players seek to topple Tommy in his apparent weakened state.  Guess what?  Don’t mess with mother fuckin’ Tommy Gibbs!  He infiltrates back into New York for an action-packed second half that sees the Godfather of Harlem lock down his criminal empire, crushing the opposition in spectacular shoot-outs, chases, and over-the-top set pieces.

HELL UP IN HARLEM’s character development comes early before the film slips into non-stop action mode.  It’s a smart move by Cohen because BLACK CAESAR delivered a rich tapestry of characters balanced with requisite action to satisfy audiences.  The sequel needs to clean up an awkward plot point from BLACK CAESAR (um . . . Tommy Gibbs dies at the end) and does so with enough aplomb that the viewer easily moves on.  There’s a very convoluted plot and a few shifts in tone.  For instance, Julius Harris transitions from a meek father figure to embracing a full-on pimp lifestyle while running the Gibb’s operations in Tommy’s absence.  He’s every bit as charismatic as Williamson once he’s accepted the role of unlawful crime lord, but this isn’t the character progression you’d envision from his previous turn as meek Papa Gibbs in BLACK CAESAR.

Williamson proves his appeal as an action star.  He’s a badass from beginning to end with a hard attitude, a strict code of conduct, and an endless reserve of ass kicking.  He leads an amphibious assault against a mafia seaside retreat, jumps into a fist pounding encounter throughout an airport, and squares off single handedly against a group of armed enforcers at a construction site.  BLACK CAESAR may have had a stronger story, but HELL UP IN HARLEM unleashed the raging Williamson beast to spectacular results.

One thing worthy of note – the soundtrack is absolutely solid and the contributions of Edwin Starr elevate the soundscape to be well above average for a modestly budgeted action film, but this isn’t the transcendent fusion of music and film that James Brown achieved in BLACK CAESAR.

About the Olive Films Release:

Olive Films has given HELL UP IN HARLEM its Blu-ray debut.  The film is delivered in a high definition 1080p widescreen presentation framed at 1.85:1. The transfer is quite good, with solid colors and sharp clarity in highly detailed or textured scenes.  The only audio option delivers a DTS-HD 2.0 mono track that adequately represents the dialog, ambient noise, soundtrack and gunfire.  It’s not a fancy remix into surround stereo, but it packs the necessary punch for an action film and showcases the score nicely.

Here’s a list of Olive Films’ Blu-ray features:

  • Trailer
  • New audio commentary with director Larry Cohen

Final Thoughts:
HELL UP IN HARLEM remains a fun, action packed film that gives the viewer another chance to experience Fred William’s crime kingpin Tommy Gibbs.  The involved and convoluted plot does not hinder enjoyment as the audacious action ultimately wins out for a very satisfactory movie.  See BLACK CAESAR first, then enjoy the extended exercise in urban violence that is HELL UP IN HARLEM.

Contributed by Drew Beckmann