Fred Williamson Comes Back to Life in ‘Hell Up In Harlem’ to Hammer Home Blaxploitation History Month
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But then, as if we were a Thing with Two Heads we lay aside all our Hangups to tell you why we think the film is actually Super Fly. Then, for The Final Comedown, we’ll offer a Big Time delicious themed snack food item for you to cram down your food Shaft.
This week’s big score: Hell Up in Harlem
Alas it is time once again to bid farewell to Blaxploitation History Month, and this third incarnation in which we’ve focused on the best of the best worst blaxploitation sequels. We may not have broken any new ground or radically advanced the medium of irreverent film journalism, but some how, against all odds, we managed to undeniably not get sued. So please enjoy this chicken we just counted well before it hatched.
What Makes The First Film Bad?
Hell Up in Harlem is the sequel to Black Caesar starring one of my absolute favorite blaxploitation icons: Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. How it took Williamson eleven Blaxploitation History Month entries before he was spotlighted is beyond explanation, but I’m sure I’m owed one prescription-strength punch to the mouth from Dr. The Hammer. In Black Caesar, Williamson plays Tommy Gibbs, a streetwise gangster who systematically usurps power from many of the Italian crime families in New York. Black Caesar is essentially a Warner Brothers gangster film with an African American in the role traditionally reserved for the likes of James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson; right down to the pinstripe suits and (appropriate) tommy guns (womp womp). For the first two and 3/4 acts, Black Caesar is one of my favorite blaxploitation films. But in its last moments before the credits, it completely shits the bed…then shits it again…then sets the bed on fire…then topples the building housing the bed which is also made of shit.
You see, The Hammer had rules for his onscreen personae. That’s right, the man was so unstoppably badass that casting him in your movie meant conforming to alternative filmmaking commandments with the understanding that breaking them would find you on the loosing end of a game we like to call Hide-n-Go-Count-Your-Teeth. The rules were pretty simple: 1.) Hammer always gets the girl 2.) Hammer wins his fights and 3.) You can’t kill Hammer. Black Caesar violates the last edict by killing Hammer at the end. Not only does Hammer (as Tommy) get killed, he gets shot in the middle of a busy street, chased to an abandoned lot, and beaten to death by a group of youths. The film then pans to the skyline and throws the arbitrary date, August 20th, 1972, onto the screen. What the what what when what? Is that the date of the first day of production on Black Caesar or the director’s niece’s birthday? Or was the writer perhaps just severely broken up over the death of Harold Stark, Chief of Naval Operations during the attack on Pearl Harbor? Naval history predilections notwithstanding, it is easily one of the worst film endings I’ve ever witnessed that, AGAIN, violates Sir Hammer’s rules.
What Makes The Sequel Bad?
My guess is that, and mind you this is not based on fact but rather how it plays in my head like an Unsolved Mysteries reenactment on an infinite loop, director Larry Cohen thought he could pull one over on Ol’ Freddy Hammer by convincing him Tommy would survive the hit, and then, using creative (read: fart-brained) editing, dared to kill him off without Williamson being any the wiser. But upon seeing the film, Hammer became enraged with rage, marched right down to Cohen’s office and repeatedly introduced his face to his own desk. Then, as crimson human-sauce poured from his quivering, split lip, Cohen promised to write a sequel that brought Tommy back despite the fact that he very definitely killed him at the end of Black Caesar.
Enter Hell Up in Harlem.
Hell Up in Harlem begins as should any good sequel released within the same year as the first, by recapping the events of the end of its predecessor just in case we forgot. We get to see Tommy shot AGAIN and watch him try to escape AGAIN. Only this time, he gets away, steals back the crucial ledger full of the names of corrupt police and politicians (A Slaughter’s Big Rip Off Rip Off? No, idiot, shut up), and then calls his dad. His pop then meets him at the lot instead of that group of youths we very clearly saw kill him. It’s the pinnacle of “don’t worry about it” writing in which Cohen recaps the things we saw at the end of Black Caesar, and then just rewrote the elements that would preclude a sequel like, you know, that whole being beaten to death by a group of children thing.
From there, Cohen fills in the blanks (and by that I mean the sea of blankness in the script after the first two pages) with nothing but violence. There’s not really a story per se, as much as there is a never-ending series of vengeance montages filmed independently of thought or context. We see people getting shot hither and thither or car bombs exploding never-introduced thugs into pieces which end up hither, thither, and over there. The plot is incidentally forced in while Tommy reloads. It’s the Rocky IV of gangster films. What few plot elements the film feels appropriate to share with the audience are haphazardly communicated through voice-overs, cutaway shots, and ADR; as much an afterthought as a belated birthday card from an estranged father…who thought for sure you died at the end of Black Caesar. Otherwise, the only cinematic language this film speaks is MuzzleBlastese, and it has a nasty stutter. It’s the very definition of run-and-gun filmmaking, in that all they are really concerned with is crowding the screen with as many shots as possible of Fred Williamson running and firing a gun.
It’s probably best that the film has as much trouble standing still as a sugar-snorting kindergarten class after a sixteen hour nap. If we were given the opportunity to stop and think about what little is unfolding before us beyond the hit parade, we’d probably find it difficult not to notice what a giant bag of dicks Tommy Gibbs has become since the first film. He kidnaps and redistributes the children of the woman who sold him out (and then later freaks out when someone else kills her), he calls a nun a hooker before promptly bedding her, and punches police officers in the face before peacefully complying with their simple request (not the corrupt cops mind you, but the ones sent to bring him in for routine questioning). He also refuses to believe his own father, you know the one who somewhat very much saved his life earlier in the film, over the word of a cracked-out hobo. The only thing he doesn’t do is get a preacher killed…oh wait he totally does that too. I hate to say this, but I feel like Tommy really paints a negative portrait of the ruthless black gangster.
Hell Up in Harlem suffers on a technical level from a see-saw of an overly-specific soundtrack and a thoroughly confused sound design. First to the latter, the film’s sound designer was evidently handed the scripts to eight separate new projects requiring of his talents. Then, in a moment of pure DickVanDykeitude, he tripped over an ottoman and faceplanted on the floor; scattering the pages of the scripts in a festive fit of clumsiness. This may explain h0w Hanna-Barbera sound effects make their way into the opening chase sequence or why Shaw Brothers-style dull meat-slaps accompany one of the big brawl scenes. I could be wrong of course, perhaps it’s merely that Tommy Gibbs studied under the master of the flying guillotine and is entrenched in a blood feud with Barry Rubble. It is also conceivable that the production of Hell Up in Harlem was sponsored by Budweiser, as at one point in the film a group of four approaching men in the park sounds like a thundering herd of Clydesdales.
Then there’s the soundtrack which, as near as I can tell, is specially designed to tap into the super niche demographic of blaxploitation fans who are also, how shall I put this, blind. The lyrics to the underscoring songs are born not of the “write what you know” school of songwriting as much as the school of “write exactly the things you see in front of you with no figurative license whatsoever.” When Tommy begins his date with Jennifer by buying her a rose, the song ‘Jennifer’ begins with the lyric, “a rose for you.” Which of course leads to the scene of Tommy spending Sunday at the zoo with his son to the eerily cryptic tune ‘Sundays at the Zoo with My Son.’ Tommy’s release from prison is accompanied by the catchy, supposedly rhetorical, ‘Don’t It Feel Good to Be Free?’ I was waiting for the chart-topping hit ‘These People Made the Movie’ to play under the end credits.
Why I Love The Sequel!
The existence of the second film makes the first less insulting and therefore upholds the greatness of its first two acts. If Black Caesar was really the sole chapter of the Tommy Gibbs story, the film’s ending would sour me to it forever. But the fact, albeit a contrived and brain-mocking fact, that Gibbs survived for the sequel makes that abysmal final curtain in the first film null and void. I don’t even necessarily care that Hell Up in Harlem is the hopelessly padded out mulligan for that first ending; they set out to correct a five minute misstep with a ninety-four minute film. And I’ll be an avenging disco godfather if this thing doesn’t have more ill-conceived insulation than my house’s attic…which I tried to weatherproof with cotton candy and Swiss cheese. At one point, Tommy’s rival flies to L.A. to escape his wrath. We not only see Tommy chase him to the airport, but then also subsequently purchase his own ticket, go through security, take off, land, and then collide with his rival at baggage claim. All that’s missing is the ten minute scene wherein Tommy heatedly argues with the gate agent who informs him that his overly bloated story device will have to purchase a second seat.
Luckily for us, Tommy does plenty more in this film than just negotiate the trivialities of air travel. As we previously might have hinted at, he also kills enough people to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool with corpses. He’s not so much as gangster anymore as he is a superhero granted superhuman badassitude by accidental exposure to Hamma’ radiation. He shoots drug dealers in broad daylight, snipes fools from a scaffolding high above Times Square, and even kills a dude with a beach umbrella. Tommy is so badass that his remarkably inappropriate turtle neck and polyester pants beach attire does nothing to hinder his ability to move undetected through the crowd. He’s such a spectacular hitman that by the end our desire to see him execute a hit supersedes our need to know who his targets are and how they fit in with the “plot.” Hell, he’s so unburdened by the laws of reason in his assassinations that I’d even believe he could outrun a police car on foot, which is good because he honest-to-Dolemite outruns a goddamn police car on foot! Gibbs finishes off his biggest foe by slowly hanging him from a tree using a makeshift noose he hastily fashions from a pair of neckties. Apart from racial implications of this kill, with all the flack given to the 70s for its hideous fashion, I’m just glad Larry Cohen at least stuck up for the durability of those fabrics. Tommy even leads a major siege on the island manor of the mafia commission! Oh my good burger, that siege.
So the covert task force approaching from the water are about as covert as an elderly ladies’ swim class at the Witchita YMCA. Luckily however, all the guards stationed around the manor are apparently being paid to stand at the shore and stare…at the house. Yeah guys, I think you’ve fundamentally missed the point of guarding the house; intimidating the house itself into remaining still is not what they meant. So Tommy and his men snorkel up to the shore like a squad of Navy SEALS, well not SEALS necessarily; more like surprisingly buoyant manatee carcasses. Then they somehow activate their sleeper agents inside the house and all the black maids pull revolvers to take out the first wave of guards. Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read or seen The Help yet, but I’m almost 100% sure it ends in much the same way. The siege ends in an inexplicable victory for Tommy’s guys who then have the maids serve up a big soul food feast for the bosses. It is quite possibly one of the most racist things I’ve ever witnessed in a blaxploitation films. It’s not so much that the maids offensively cluck off the contents of the feast as if Al Jolson was their acting coach, but the mobsters react to all this delicious food as if they’ve just been asked to eat their own parents.
As much as I rip on the music in this film for being too on-the-nose, in it’s defense, it is absurdly on-the-nose. But it also features a killer theme song, as is common practice for this genre. The theme song has the requisite funk beat and is belted by a near-shrieking soul singer to emphasize both the titular hell and the location in which it is up in. Oh, by the way, that singer is none other than Edwin Starr. Starr of course is the man who gave us the most fundamentally flawed Army recruitment song ‘War, What is it Good For?’
Junkfood Pairing: Hell Up On Hotdogs
Bear with me here, I’m not crazy. Granted, it is nearing sunrise and I have been drinking my signature scotch and (baking) soda cocktail while cramming jellybeans up my nose for the last seven hours, but still not with the for crazy.
Get yourself a bottle of Hell Sauce (trademark symbol) and pour it liberally (read: unwisely) over a hot dog you bought from a vendor in the park. You now have Hell up in your hotdog. Hopefully you’ll avoid the fate of the mobsters in the movie and won’t die with half a hotdog hanging out of your gob. Hopefully. Hell Up on Hotdogs.