The ruins of Sugar Hill, a handsome Harlem neighborhood that once embodied the pinnacle of urban African-American achievement, is the setting for a story of fraternal rivalry in the drug trade. Intended as more than a simple genre flick, SUGAR HILL aspires to something like classical
tragedy, but it's weighed down by its sense of self-importance.
Roemello (Wesley Snipes) and his older brother Raynathan (Michael Wright) have been scarred by their family's association with drugs. Their mother died of an overdose in front of her children's horrified eyes (in fact, Raynathan helped her shoot up the fatal hit), and their father A.R. (Clarence
Williams III), a jazz musician, smalltime dealer, and addict, was crippled, both physically and mentally, in a turf war. Nevertheless, both sons have become dealers and Roemello, the cooler and more analytical of the two, has risen to the top of his trade. He works for aging Mafioso Gus Molino
(Abe Vigoda), a holdover from the time when Italian gangsters controlled the drug business and a man of respect and honor; Molino's son, a crooked cop (Larry Joshua), is determined to protect his father from the upcoming generation of vicious youngsters who want to control the business themselves.
Though Roemello loves his swank apartment and stylish clothes, he's tormented; he knows drugs are decimating his community, and loathes himself for his part in the destruction of young black men and women. Roemello's dilemma comes to a head when he falls in love with Melissa Holly (Theresa
Randle), an aspiring actress whose mother (Leslie Uggams) has spent her life sheltering her daughter from the drugs and violence that surround her. At first Melissa refuses to have anything to do with him, but she's eventually won over by his manners and intelligence; he decides to get out of
dealing while he can and make a new life with her. Raynathan is hurt and angry; he knows he can't run the business by himself. To make matters worse, boxer-turned-dealer Lolly (Ernie Hudson) and his partner, Tony Adamo (Joe Dallesandro), are determined to move in on the brothers' territory and are
willing to kill anyone who stands in their way.
Torn between his responsibilities to his family, his mentor, his community, and himself, Roemello is quickly caught up in the inevitable nightmare of betrayal and bloodshed that leaves his best friend and his brother dead. Roemello himself is shot, but in the film's hard-to-swallow coda, we see
him crippled but happy, living in picturesque rural loveliness with Melissa and their child.
Journalist-turned-screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper, Harlem born and raised, also wrote Mario Van Peebles's gangster thriller NEW JACK CITY (1991); he claimed that SUGAR HILL was born out of his desire to write a realistic drama about black men and women torn between longing for mainstream
success and the violent realities of life on the streets. His earnestness is evident in virtually every scene of SUGAR HILL, a movie in which stereotypes nevertheless reign supreme and characters are often in danger of talking one another to death. Perhaps the weakest link in the chain of
character relationships is the virtuous Melissa, who must act as the catalyst who changes Roemello's life without having any believable life of her own. She's shocked and dismayed when she learns that the apparently unemployed but conspicuously wealthy Roemello is a dealer, shocked and
disillusioned when the famous athlete with whom she flirts outrageously at a chic club makes a crude sexual advance, shocked and terrified when Roemello's friends and associates in the drug business begin dying.
SUGAR HILL loudly deplores the drug trade and the violence that goes with it, as did NEW JACK CITY. But like the earlier film, SUGAR HILL so glamorizes the life of successful dealers like Roemello that it's hard to imagine anyone really buying into his angst and torment. Choosing between the
medium and the message is a terrible dilemma for a filmmaker, and SUGAR HILL's visual resplendence is evidence that director Leon Ichaso (EL SUPER, CROSSOVER DREAMS) wasn't willing to compromise aesthetics in order to convey the notion that a life in drug dealing is ugly and morally repellent.
(Sexual situations, violence, profanity, substance abuse.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: The ruins of Sugar Hill, a handsome Harlem neighborhood that once embodied the pinnacle of urban African-American achievement, is the setting for a story of fraternal rivalry in the drug trade. Intended as more than a simple genre flick, SUGAR HILL aspires… (more)