Dying at the end of BLACK CAESAR (1973) didn't prevent gangster Tommy Gibbs from returning in this hastily assembled sequel. Unfocused, meandering, disconnected, and thoroughly implausible, it nonetheless has even more well-handled action and restless energy than the original.
Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson), shot by assassins, stumbles uptown to meet his father (Julius Harris), who hides a set of ledgers that Gibbs has obtained which detail government officials on the take. After Gibbs is nursed back to health, he seizes the children of his ex-girlfriend Helen (who set
him up) to raise as his own. Then he leads a squad of killers to take hostage some corrupt officials vacationing in Florida, to ensure acquittal at his upcoming trial.
Three years later, Gibbs is living with churchgoing Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery) along with his father and kids, when Helen is killed by Zach (Tony King), an underling who aspires to power and blames Papa Gibbs for the murder. Tommy Gibbs responds by moving his family out of town and giving
over the criminal organization to his father, who immediately immerses himself in drink, women, and murder. Eventually, Papa Gibbs tangles with Zach; the two fight, and Papa dies of a heart attack.
Attempting to go legit in Beverly Hills, Gibbs is forced to kill a team of assailants and then heads to New York for vengeance. He shoots a number of men and chases Zach to Los Angeles to kill him, discovering afterward that his child has been kidnapped by District Attorney DiAngelo (Gerald
Gordon), Zach's backer and one of the officials named in the ledgers. With the help of his boyhood friend Reverend Rufus (D'Urville Martin)--who is killed in the process--Gibbs rescues his child and disposes of the wicked D.A.
Opening with scenes of BLACK CAESAR's climax, minus Gibbs's death sequence, HELL UP IN HARLEM was rushed into production while the first film was still raking in profits. With a script made up on the fly, it's a jumble of nonsensical but entertaining sequences rather than a linear and coherent
film. "Like an hour-and-a-half montage," is how writer-director Larry Cohen describes it. Characters from the first film return with entirely different characteristics, such as Papa Gibbs, suddenly a shrewd criminal (Tommy beams proudly when his dad kills his first man; momma, he says, would be
happy to see them together again); and Reverend Rufus, one minute a man of God and a bitter foe, the next a honky-shooting, devoted friend, with no explanation for the change of heart. Gibbs, after kidnapping someone else's children (and even here, the film seems confused as to exactly how many
children, one or two--with Helen simply accepting the incident rather than bothering to report it to anyone), suddenly becomes a morally upstanding homebody who takes the kid to the zoo and wants to quit the rackets. He is never seen engaging in any criminal activity other than killing worse
criminals, those darn drug pushers, and his supposed limp (which was talked about in the first film but never especially in evidence) is entirely absent as he races down the boardwalk on Coney Island, a police car in pursuit. The film also includes another, rather more peculiar chase as Zach,
pursued to the airport, makes it onto a cross-country flight. Gibbs doesn't. So he catches the next flight on a neighboring airline. After a break of several hours, the chase resumes on the other side of the continent, with Gibbs attacking Zach while he waits at the baggage check.
Whereas BLACK CAESAR included a team of assassins gunning down a group of heavily guarded mob bosses in California, HELL UP IN HARLEM ups the ante by having Gibbs lead a team of frogmen to assault a heavily guarded gathering on "an unnamed island off the Florida Keys." In typical Cohen hyperbolic
fashion, the black maids take up guns and with big grins on their faces blow away the guards, afterward forcing their employers to gorge themselves on soul food. Likewise, the climax echoes the sardonic retribution of the original by having Gibbs lynch DiAngelo (despite being a master criminal,
the D.A. apparently forgot to put more than one bullet in his gun) by hanging him from a tree limb by a necktie.
Edwin Starr's soundtrack is decent but certainly several notches below James Brown's for the original. Julius Harris, in addition to playing Papa Gibbs, was a blaxploitation stalwart with roles including SUPERFLY, SHAFT'S BIG SCORE, TROUBLE MAN, and FRIDAY FOSTER. By the mid-1970s the backlash
against blaxploitation pictures was in full bloom, with heavy criticism of its negative role models leading to a reticence on the part of producers to finance potentially controversial product. Fred Williamson rode out the rapid decline of the genre by starting his own low-budget production
company, Po' Boy Productions, in 1974. As producer and director, he has often credited Larry Cohen and the Black Caesar films with teaching him the tactics of guerrilla filmmaking; how to shoot fast and cheap, without unions or permits. (Graphic violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations,extreme profanity.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1973
- Rating: R
- Review: Dying at the end of BLACK CAESAR (1973) didn't prevent gangster Tommy Gibbs from returning in this hastily assembled sequel. Unfocused, meandering, disconnected, and thoroughly implausible, it nonetheless has even more well-handled action and restless ener… (more)