Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The Seven Most Amazing Scenes in "Hell Up In Harlem" (1973)

Paying tribute to the finest moments in Fred Williamson’s immortal blaxploitation classic

By: Jimbo X

I’ve been a pretty big fan of blaxploitation movies for a long time. You know the grand titans of the sub-sub-subgenre — Shaft and Superfly and Dolomite and their ilk. Hell, I could EASILY write a doctoral thesis on the Penitentiary trilogy, and probably should someday, and the way I see it, no Black History Month should ever elapse without a screening of both Brotherhood of Death AND Fight For Your Life

And while there are no doubt plenty of great blaxploitation action heroes, for my money, none of them stood taller than Fred Williamson. No offense to Rudy Ray Moore or Richard Roundtree, but you could tell those guys were just actors and not legitimate badasses. But as soon as “The Hammer” showed up on screen, you just knew some asses were bound to be kicked, and could be kicked for real as hard as he wanted.

By now we all know about Williamson’s exploits on the football field. As a cornerback for the Raiders (and two other NFL teams, who I refuse to reference by name for ethical reasons), “The Hammer” played EXACTLY like his nickname sounded, not just pounding the hot dogshit out of his opponents, but ultimately cutting his own pro ‘ball career short after accumulating one too many shots to noggin. Which, of course, gave him a convenient excuse to turn to acting for a living, and boy howdy, does he have quite the filmography. Overlooking the mainstream normie stuff like M*A*S*H and From Dusk Till Dawn, the guy was in a million-bajillion low budget exploitation classics in the 1970s and 1980s, running the gamut from westerns like The Legend of Nigger Charley and Adios Amigo to Italian post-apocalpytic vigilante flicks like 1990: The Bronx Warriors and Warriors of the Year 2072. Of course, “The Hammer” is synonymous with early 1970s blaxploitation offerings, and perhaps the finest of his fledgling film career was 1973’s Black Caesar, a remake of Little Caesar (the 1931 movie, not the pizza) featuring a soundtrack by James Brown that was written and directed by quite possibly the LEAST black person in Hollywood history, Larry Cohen — i.e., the guy behind It’s Alive, Q The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and a whole bunch of other kooky horror-ish fare that really exists in a genre all of its own. Well, Black Caesar proved so successful at the box office that a sequel was immediately commissioned — and when I say “immediately,” I mean it came out the very same fuckin’ year

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Hell Up in Harlem, quite possibly the finest gore-soaked, anti-establishment, black power murder fantasy ever written, directed and produced solely by Jews. And with February designated as the month to reflect on and revere the African-American arts and all, what better time to pay tribute to what is easily the third or fourth best movie Williamson made in 1973?

Admittedly, I recognize that Black Caesar is a much better movie than HUIH — whereas the original flick tried to be a legit crime drama, this one is more concerned about giving you all of the outlandish B-movie hijinks you crave, even if it means sacrificing things like continuity and character development in the process. And I guess even compared to some of the other blaxploitation movies from the epoch, HUIH ain’t without its shortcomings. Long story short, HUIH is a movie with some absolutely TREMENDOUS scenes wrapped around a lot of dead weight, the kind of movie that will give you four or five minutes of pure awesomeness then go into a 15-20 minute doldrum that’ll almost have you nodding off. So while HUIH is, structurally, a mess, the parts of its sum is nearly greater than the sum of its parts here — and if that isn’t apparent by the following seven scenes, I honestly don’t know how to show you the light, kids.

The Opening Sequence!

By Blaxploitation movie law, all genre movies made after Shaft are required to open with a.) a title card sequence where the protagonist walks around the city like a total badass, and b.) an equally badass theme song playing in the background to complement said bad-assdom. Well, in Hell Up In Harlem, Sam Z. Arkoff and folks definitely upped the ante, getting none other than Edwin “Huh, War, what is it good for?” Starr to not only produce the rousing introductory song, but perform the entire film score. So yeah, if you don’t like some jazzy-ass bass beats, you might want to plug your ears for the duration of this ‘un. Even better, while Edwin is belting out the lyrics to “Ain’t It Hell Up In Harlem,” we get a slight restructuring of the ending of “Black Caesar,” which repositions Fred Williamson as gravely injured but far from dead after a would-be assassination attempt. Ultimately, this results in a corrupt cop feeling up Gibbs’ wife’s boobies in the back of a squad car while saying lines like “all black bitches are the same, you’re so stupid,” and Gibbs — naturally — no selling the gunshot to the spleen at point blank range, hailing a taxi, commandeering said taxi down the sidewalks of New York City and finally jumping out of the vehicle and strangling a honkey to death in the middle of Times Square, in broad daylight. And just so you know — all of this happens before we even make it to the six minute mark of the movie!

The Totally Random Kung-Fu Melee with Asian People!

Of course, there’s another Blaxploitation movie law this and every other subgenre movie from the 1970s is required to fulfill, and that’s the inclusion of at least one karate fight sequence. I’m kinda’ thinking Larry Cohen and pals may have left that out of the final script, and right before filming wrapped somebody said “Oy vey, we don’t have any KUNG FU in this motherfucker!” so they shot this TOTALLY random, COMPLETELY out of place scene where Gibbs and the gang have an utterly meaningless donnybrook with a buncha’ Asian guys, who — of course — attack them with a flurry of karate kicks and some hilariously awful chop-socky sound effects. Canonically, the guys are supposed to be heroin smugglers out of Singapore, but apparently the scriptwriter wasn’t too keen on geography, ‘cause he had Gibbs say that Tokyo is a port in said country. Then they make a buncha’ jokes about Asians being short and Pearl Harbor, and there’s this FANTASTIC moment in the middle of the brawl where it looks like Papa Gibbs LEGIT hip tosses the fuck out of one of the extras and you can even see the look on his face like “Oh, fuck, I just crippled me a Japaheeno on camera.” You know, for a movie about systemic racism in the legal system, there sure is a lot of casual racism uttered by the heroes of this flick — which, yeah, I don’t think was unintentional on Larry Cohen’s part.

The Raid on the Florida Keys Compound!

Just when you think this awesome sequence can’t get any better, it somehow finds a way to top itself. For starters, the scene begins with Fred Williamson and his army of scuba diver commandos making a beachhead on some island resort where the corrupt Italians have a timeshare, and they LITERALLY show up to battle in speedos and flippers. Of course, the movie doesn’t try to explain how their submachine guns weren’t damaged during the long, underwater trek, but since it gives us Gibbs dropping the line “whoever came up with that bullshit about black people not being able to swim?” all is instantly forgiven. So, as expected, Gibbs and his Afro-Commandos wind up blowing away a good 20 or 30 mooks with assault rifles, and there’s this one part where one of the Italian’s buxom bikini wenches tries to KARATE fight Gibbs, which, of course, means he has to give that ho the old Hulk Hogan big boot right to face. But that’s NOTHING compared to the sequence’s big punchline, when the black maids at the compound (who, apparently, are in cahoots with Gibbs and company, somehow) TORTURE the guidoes by forcing them to eat soul food at gunpoint. I mean, goddamn, how can you even imagine topping a closer like that, anyway?

Gibbs Trying To Get Some From The Religious Girl!

Alright, so if you’ve never seen Black Caesar, some of this stuff is going to be over your head. But thankfully, old Jimbo is here to fill you in on the needed context. So, in part one, D’Urville Martin (who later went on to direct Dolemite, among other blaxploitation legends) played this gay named Reverend Rufus, a former pimp turned man of the cloth who was still a shady motherfucker. Well, in Hell Up In Harlem, he’s made a pretty big name for himself as a public access televangelist, and at one point in the movie he urges Harlemites to go after Gibbs and pals for bringing so much death and destruction to the community. Naturally, this results in Gibbs showing up at his house of worship unannounced, so he can give Reverend Rufus a thorough tongue lashing. Of course, while he’s there, Gibbs can’t help but notice Sister Jennifer, whom he immediately tries to woo by saving (and I’m paraphrasing a bit here) “Hey baby, whenever you get tired of talking to the Lord, come and see me.” And in case you’re wondering if such a pickup line was effective, in the very next scene, Gibbs is making sweet, sweet love to her while this sexy ass song plays in the background.

The Guy on the Confederate Flag Beach Towel Being Impaled For Seemingly No Reason Whatsoever!

You know, some scenes are so intrinsically amazing that it seems like simply commenting on them is superfluous. Of course, I have to give you just a little bit of context for this scene to kinda sorta make sense, but really, that’s just an aside. So Gibbs decides to move to L.A. with Sister Jennifer to get out of the mob game altogether, only his old business partner Zach gets pissed and sends a whole bunch of goons to machine gun his condo in a scene that seems to have really inspired Scarface, right down to the layout of the stairwell and the color schemes on the walls. Well, after that doesn’t get his attention, Zach LITERALLY beats Gibbs’ daddy to death in a street fight, and that goads him to return to New York to settle the score. So after snipering some random Italian goon in Times Square, Gibbs tries to hide out on Coney Island, and while he’s sprinting from his pursuers, he eyes a totally random individual sunbathing on a confederate flag-adorned beach towel. So, amidst his already busy itinerary of killing a whole buncha’ motherfuckers in broad daylight in public with hundreds of eyewitnesses, Gibbs says, “Hell, why not jab a razor sharp beach umbrella through this guy’s back while I’m at it?” I don’t know, maybe the guy was one of DiAngelo’s goons, but I like to prefer Gibbs killed the guy simply because he didn’t like his choice in beachwear iconography. 

The INSANE Cross-County Murder-thon Denoument!

Here’s a literary term you ought to know: denouement. Basically, it’s a fancy French way of saying “that one part in the story right before the climax.” Well, actually, it isn’t, but it certainly sounds more intellectual than using the “accurate” terminology, rising action. Well, in Hell Up In Harlem, they spared no expense in making the set-up to the grand finale something memorable, with our protagonist literally making a cross-country trip to kill the two major antagonists of the movie — as well as about 40 or 50 of their minions in between. This scene is bookended by two FANTASTIC kills — the first being a sequence where Gibbs and Zach have a karate death fight on luggage conveyer belt and the real kicker, this part where Gibbs goes all Solid Snake on a moving plane and tries to murder this one Italian goon as silently as possible. Which reminds me: kids, don’t ever fucking play with plastic bags. EVER.

The Hilariously Ironic Final Fight Between Gibbs and DiAngelo!

After so much inspired mayhem, you knew Larry Cohen and pals had to pull out all the stops for the grand finale fight to the death between Gibbs and DiAngelo. And boy, did they hit a proverbial home run here. First off, you have to remember that DiAngelo had Gibbs’ wife killed and abducted his son prior to this confrontation, so yeah, Gibbs had a lot of reasons to kill this motherfucker in the most merciless way possible. Of course, you just can’t have Fred Williamson shot the guy and be done with it, you REALLY have to make DiAngelo suffer in the most poetic way possible. So how does Gibbs get his final justice in the movie? Real simple — he grabs DiAngelo by his tie, teethers him to a tree limb and fucking strangulates him with his own business suit. But what REALLY makes this ending world class are Gibbs’ linguistic coup de grace; right after telling him he’s about to send DiAngleo to “Wop heaven,” he utters “you’re gonna’ be the first whitey ever hung by a nigger!” Aspiring screenwriters might as well throw in the towel now, ‘cause I guarantee you we ain’t ever gonna’ hear dialogue that great ever again in the motion picture medium.


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