Today, I’ll be wrapping up the first two-week stretch of the Larry Cohen Collection with the 1973 sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”
“Hell Up In Harlem” was once again written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen as a direct follow up to his first hit, “Black Caesar.”
Outside of Larry Cohen, the producers for “Hell Up In Harlem” were b-movie legend Samuel Arkoff (“Q”) and a trio returning producers from “Black Caesar”: James Dixon, Janelle Webb, and Peter Sabiston.
The cinematographer for “Hell Up In Harlem” was once again Fenton Hamilton, who also acted as director of photography on “It’s Alive” simultaneously.
The effects work on “Hell Up In Harlem” is credited to Marvin Kerner, who has worked on sound effects for films such as “Black Caesar,” “Gymkata,” and “China O’Brien.”
The editors on “Hell Up In Harlem” were Peter Honess (“Troy,” “Highlander,” “It’s Alive”) and Franco Guerri, who previously worked as a camera operator on the Larry Cohen film “Bone” and as an assistant editor on “Black Caesar.”
The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was performed by soul icon Edwin Starr, who took over the job from James Brown (who did the work for “Black Caesar”). The score was composed by Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren, who wrote numerous hits for The Jackson 5 over their careers and were top-tier music producers as part of “The Corporation”. The score also had input from Barry De Vorzon, who composed the theme song for “S.W.A.T.” and provided music for the film “The Warriors.”
The cast for “Hell Up In Harlem” is once again headlined by Fred Williamson, and features other returning players from “Black Caesar” in D’Urville Martin (“Dolemite”), James Dixon (“The Stuff,” “Q”), Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), and Julius Harris (“Super Fly”). The biggest new addition is Margaret Avery as the new love interest for Gibbs, who is best known from “The Color Purple.”
The story of “Hell Up In Harlem” picks up following a slightly altered recap of the conclusion to “Black Caesar,” and shows Gibbs recover and expand his criminal empire across the United States. Inevitably, he is betrayed once again, leading to one last bout of heated revenge.
The reception for “Hell Up In Harlem” wasn’t nearly as warm as it was for “Black Caesar”: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 13% (critics) and 52% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 6.1.
“Hell Up In Harlem” was intriguingly filmed on weekends during the making of “It’s Alive,” because that was the only time when both Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson were available to make the film. Both men were working on different movies for different studios at the time, and most of the team had to pull numerous 7 day work weeks to get the film completed.
The fact that “Hell Up In Harlem” was a rushed production completed on weekends doesn’t at all surprise me, because the entire film feels rushed, strained, and exhausted. There clearly wasn’t as much passion thrown into the creation of the film as there was for “Black Caesar,” and the result is that the film feels a bit passive and routine, lacking a certain necessary energy from top to bottom.
One of my biggest issues with “Hell Up In Harlem” is that it negates the fantastic ending of “Black Caesar.” Also, the film really shouldn’t exist, as the story is effectively wrapped up in “Black Caesar.” The film was clearly solely made because of the profit potential for a sequel, and it ironically feels soulless because of it.
The score for “Hell Up In Harlem” isn’t quite as memorable or catchy as the one for “Black Caesar.” As good as Edwin Starr is, he is a downgrade from the power of James Brown. That said, both the theme song and “Big Papa” are pretty fantastic.
“Hell Up In Harlem” is entertaining as segments, but it doesn’t feel like a coherent work on the whole. I think this is mostly because of the way the film was thrown together in a rush, and the fact that the story had to be somewhat manifested out of thin air in the wake of “Black Caesar.”
People seem to like “Hell Up In Harlem” better in retrospect, surprisingly. I think that this is partially because it is a little more over the top than “Black Caesar,” which gives it some more campy value. However, fans of “Black Caesar” seem to be particularly harsh of the sequel for not living up to the quality of the original work, whereas most of the critics of “Black Caesar” were detractors from the world of mainstream cinema.
Some credit has to be given to “Hell Up In Harlem” for having a much cooler title than “Black Caesar,” but it also doesn’t immediately ring a bell as a sequel. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not, or if it is necessarily an advantage or a hindrance to the film as a whole. I would be curious to get someone’s opinion of “Hell Up In Harlem” if they had never seen “Black Caesar,” and if that would make them more or less generous to it from a critical point of view.
Another thing that I do like in “Hell Up In Harlem” is the character development allowed for Helen, Revered Rufus, and Papa Gibbs. One of the weaknesses of “Black Caesar” is that there isn’t much detail in the accessory cast, and it is squarely focused solely on Gibbs throughout the run time. “Hell Up In Harlem” at least gives these three accessory characters time and room to grow and develop, which makes the film better for it.
The conclusion of “Hell Up In Harlem” tries to recapture some of the emotion and shock from “Black Caesar,” but lightning doesn’t strike twice, and it ultimately feels contrived and plays like a clear imitation.
Overall, “Hell Up In Harlem” is not awful, but it also isn’t particularly good. In comparison to “Black Caesar,” it doesn’t even hold a candle. The fact that it was created due to the financial success of the previous film rather than based on necessity or sense started it off with a bit of a handicap, and the rushed production didn’t do it any favors. It is still worth checking out if this is a genre that is up your alley, but it isn’t as essential of a watch as “Black Caesar.”