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  Hell Up in Harlem Black In Action
Year: 1973
Director: Larry Cohen
Stars: Fred Williamson, Julius Harris, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D'Urville Martin, Tony King, Gerald Gordon, Bobby Ramsen, James Dixon, Esther Sutherland, Charles MacGuire, Ty Randolph
Genre: Drama, Action, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) is in real trouble. He is a gangster boss who has the New York City police force at his beck and call for in his possession are two ledgers which detail their corrupt dealings with the local Mafia, but now they are fighting back and have brought his criminal empire to its knees. His ex-wife Helen Bradley (Gloria Hendry) tries to get help, feeling guilty about her involvement in the activity and also concerned for the two children she has with Tommy, but she ends up kidnapped by mobster Mr DiAngelo (Gerald Gordon) so as not to alert him. Meanwhile, after a car chase that sees him shot in the gut, Gibbs struggles to contact someone who could help him, and dies...

Oh no he doesn't, well, he did at the end of Black Caesar to which this film was a sequel, but it had been so profitable for A.I.P. that they found the prospect of a follow-up irresistible, and so director and writer Larry Cohen was rehired to craft one, with leading man Williamson returning to the role that had consolidated his stardom in the movies rather than on the football field. The fact that Cohen and Williamson were shooting entirely different movies at the time - play "spot the stand-in" - didn't put them off, and neither did the fact that the previous effort had a decisive finale, they simply had Gibbs carried off first by his father (Julius Harris) and then by henchmen, pausing briefly to hide the ledgers then take him to hospital where in absurd scenes they hold the staff at gunpoint to carry out the necessary operation.

No matter that a bullet to the stomach is not something you'd imagine as blithely shrugged off as the anti-hero does here, soon he is fighting fit and striking back against those who have done him wrong, which in the language of Hell Up in Harlem meant gunning down loads of people. We're supposed to continue regarding him as hero material because he only kills bad guys, and white bad guys at that, including one James Bond-esque scene (no coincidence that Harris and Hendry were both in Live and Let Die the same year) where Williamson vocally refutes the idea that "black people can't swim" by donning a scuba outfit and invading a Mafia-owned island, blowing away the Italian-Americans as if mounting a challenge against the blockbuster The Godfather.

Interestingly, although penned by the white Cohen, there was a lot of sequences where the black folks get one over on the white folks, which to some angles looked like pandering to the target audience, sold by Williamson's customary no bullshit persona. Thus we see on that island the Mafia bosses forced to eat soul food (the ultimate indignity, apparently) and held at gunpoint by their black maids, as if sending up decades of Hollywood history, even though there are other, better, more reasonable ways of getting even than killing whitey, or pretending to kill whitey as happens plenty here. To offset Gibbs' tendency towards murder, there was a pillar of the African-American community present in the form of Reverend Rufus, played by Williamson's buddy D'Urville Martin.

He provided the counterpoint that his fellow citizens shouldn't turn to crime as Tommy has done (and his Papa has done - check out Julius Harris when he takes on the "gangsta" persona a few years before that was really a cultural thing). It's no use of course, as Gibbs is far more exciting than anyone else in the movie, breaking the law to get ahead and going as far as chasing a rival from New York to Los Angeles so he can kill him on the luggage carousel in full view of the passengers, then hopping back on the plane to return home (!). It was preposterous bits like that which kept you watching, but while they tried to up the stakes in the sequel, quite often it was more silly than anything you could take relatively seriously, with the main plot seeing Gibbs' son kidnapped dragging down the interest to simply waiting for the next bout of daftness. Williamson was as reliable as ever in his he-man stylings, and Margaret Avery offered a note of grace as his latest love interest, but the fact that almost every character ended up dead by the end wasn't worth celebrating. Songs sung by Edwin Starr (lots of them).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Larry Cohen  (1938 - )

Talented American writer/director who often combines exploitation subject matter with philosophical/social concepts. Began working in TV in the 1960s, where he created popular sci-fi series The Invaders, before directing his first film, Bone (aka Dial Rat), in 1972. A pair of blaxploitation thrillers - Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem - followed, while 1974's horror favourite It's Alive! was a commercial hit that led to two sequels.

God Told Me To and Special Effects were dark, satirical thrillers, while Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff were witty modern monster movies. Cohen directed Bette Davis in her last film, Wicked Stepmother, and reunited Blaxploitation stars Pam Grier, Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree for Original Gangstas in 1996. Cohen has also had considerable success as a scriptwriter, turning in deft screenplays for the Maniac Cop films and mainstream pictures like Best Seller, Sidney Lumet's Guilty As Sin and most recently Joel Schumacher's Phone Booth.

 
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