Tuesday, July 25, 2017

2017 Blind Spot Series: Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem

The Blind Spot Challenge, as laid down by Ryan @ The Matinee inspires us bloggers to watch movies we've never seen before, but feel like we should have. For me, that means I watch the occasional classic along with the classics of specific genres. And so, we have this month's entry...

Why did I pick it? Lots of the movie stars many film bloggers take for granted, I discovered much later than usual. Sure, Mama Dell watched movies starring legends such as Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and the like, but they were the exception rather than the rule. I knew their faces more than their work. Like the inhabitants of our house, and the houses of our friends and relatives, the stars on our screen tended to be of a darker hue. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized people I thought were full-fledged icons were considered cult figures by the world at large. I’m talking about people like William Marshall, Rudy Ray Moore, Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Richard Roundtree, Isaac Hayes, and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. It was then I learned there was a defined genre most of their films fell into – blaxploitation. Getting to see these movies as a kid was just fun. They were full of action, cool characters wearing cool clothes, and if I managed to stumble upon the uncut version, sex. As I expanded my boundaries and began watching more and more films of all genres I noticed that blaxploitation flicks often had a charm due to their overriding theme of ‘sticking it to the man,’ low budget ingenuity, willingness to be outlandish, and yes, often shoddy production values. It was easy to have a good time watching some bad movies.

They weren’t all bad. A few films have transcended their racially inspired trappings and become well respected as the best the genre has to offer. Black Caesar isn’t quite in that class, but it is considered one of the essential viewing experiences for fans of blaxploitation cinema. Needless to say, I am a fan, and I hadn’t seen it. This was the time to rectify that situation. Rather than being satisfied with just seeing one movie, I opted to go all out and also watch its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. To get properly prepared I put on my leather trench coat, stacked shoes, and took a seat on my leopard print sofa…okay…no, I didn’t. I don’t have any of that stuff. I just plopped down on my regular brown couch and pressed play on the remote.

Black Caesar starts with a young black boy shining the shoes of a white man. We quickly find out the man is into some shady dealings. The boy helps an even shadier white man, a police officer no less, kill his customer by holding on to the guy’s legs so he can’t run. This was all an arrangement, but when the boy feels he hasn’t been fairly compensated for his work he confronts the crooked cop who beats the boy down, breaks his leg, and sends him off to juvie. Fast forward some years later and we see a tall, suave, but limping figure we find out is Tommy Gibbs, obviously the boy from the earlier scene. Tommy is played by the aforementioned Williamson, a former pro football player who would go on to become a one of blaxploitation’s biggest stars. We see Tommy enter a barbershop and kill a man on whose head the mob has placed a bounty. He hasn’t done this sort of thing before, but figures this is his way “into the game.” The mob likes his spunk and gives him a chunk of Harlem to run. Tommy also has another trick up his sleeve. He has gotten his hands on some ledgers belonging to the same crooked cop from his childhood that prove a number of police officers and elected officials are corrupt. A very loose remake of the 1931 classic Little Caesar ensues.

It’s easy to see why Fred Williamson became one of blaxploitation’s biggest stars. His formidable and handsome presence dominates the screen. Not only does he exude the type of machismo to which many would be tough guys aspire; he makes it look effortlessly cool. His swagger feels like it’s all his, not the put on persona of an actor. I’ve seen multiple performances of Williamson's. There is a sameness to all of his characters that would be a detriment to most actors. Williamson makes it work every time in a way similar to the way Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks make it work. This film represents the perfect match between Williamson as a personality and him as an actor. Strangely, it was a match made because of the iconic Sammy Davis Jr. Davis had the script commissioned to be a starring vehicle for himself. Due to some financial issues, Davis had to back out of the project which paved the way for Williamson. After watching it, there is no way I could see Davis playing the leading role. Fred Williamson owns it, completely. He isn’t just playing Tommy Gibbs. He IS Tommy Gibbs.

Williamson’s bravado would be empty posturing if not for a story that sizzles. We begin with the rise of a new gangster, heavily romanticized, as is the taking down of a corrupt white cop. The cat-and-mouse between them is well done, but bettered by how the movie involves a number of others in power. It makes our antihero something of a revolutionary, an African-American seizing power in a system designed to stop him from doing that very thing. It’s a well-worn trope of blaxploitation, but here, it is expertly handled. We also get a love triangle, and a strained relationship between Tommy and his mother. The dialogue supporting all of this is filled with sharp wit. Overall, the writing is clearly a notch above much of what the genre has to offer.

Still, there is one aspect of the story that is problematic. There is a scene where Tommy forces his upset girlfriend Helen (Gloria Hendry) to have sex with him. The problem is that the film frames it in such a way as to almost…almost condone his actions. I chalk much of this up to the era in which the film was made. It came out in 1973. At the time, the idea that it was impossible for a man to rape a woman he was already involved with was fairly prevalent. There is never any evidence that this could even possibly become part of the legal problems Tommy will face. To the film’s credit, this isn’t treated entirely in a cavalier manner. There does appear to be some repercussions for this behavior. It seems to be the thing that finally pushes her away from him.

This willingness to shine an unflattering light on our hero serves the story well during its finale, also. The film is not content to let our Tommy emerge victorious and ride off into the sunset. I’m trying not to spoil it on the off-chance one of you may actually go watch this for yourself. However, I will say that the events that close the movie suggests that the Black community, the very one Tommy is both a part of and claims to want to save, doesn’t want or need a hero like him. In fact, it’s an outright rejection of the very idea of a crime lord being exalted simply because he takes down some of the whites previously in charge. It’s a brave and powerful move for a blaxploitation flick since the genre, in general, unconditionally celebrates its protagonists. Black Caesar seems to be heading in that direction, but ultimately finds fault with Tommy and takes him to task.

As mentioned earlier, blaxploitation is known for less than stellar production values that make plenty of its films fall into the so-bad-it’s-awesome category. The way the plot unfolds in Black Caesar is just too strong for that to completely be the case. However, there are plenty of technical mishaps that take us out the movie and remind us it was made on a minuscule budget. Most of the fight scenes are poorly choreographed. Punches are often missed by a mile, or not thrown with enough force to do anywhere near the amount of damage they are shown to. The substance used for blood is far too bright a shade of red. It resembles paint far more than any bodily fluid. Most laughably, there is a scene where we hear a baby crying at the top of his lungs but the camera clearly shows the same baby behaving calmly and quietly. My daughter had wandered in the room shortly before this. She remarked several times about the same things I pointed out in this paragraph. When we got to the baby scene she laughed incredulously and practically screamed “Why are there baby noises?” She quickly left the room, but these things added to my enjoyment of the film, but I fully understand how they would turn some viewers off. The excellent work by Fred Williamson, the strong writing, a killer soundtrack produced by The Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, and even all the technical faux pas combine to make this a very fun, and surprisingly, thought provoking viewing experience. We get sucked into the tale playing out before us. Our feeling toward Tommy vacillates between love and hate. Whichever way we’re feeling, we can’t help but be mesmerized by how cool a customer he is in every situation. When Black Caesar ended, I couldn’t wait to watch the sequel.

Hell Up in Harlem ambitiously starts in the middle of the finale of its predecessor. However, it removes the fantastic closing scene of Black Caesar. In fact, it pretends it never happens, altering the fate of Tommy Gibbs. Rather than going in a new direction with the plot, Hell Up in Harlem merely continues the story line of the ledgers Tommy is in possession of. This means more crooked cops and politicians are coming after Tommy and his organization. I can only assume the lack of creativity in this area has something to do with the fact that this movie was released in 1973, the very same calendar year as Black Caesar. That type of turnaround tends to work against originality. Anyhoo, we add in some inner turmoil among his crew and away we go.

While the plot is a lazy rehash, the way it goes about its machinations is still interesting. Tommy’s dad, Papa Gibbs (Julius Harris), plays an integral part in the proceedings, putting a father-son relationship front and center throughout the film. The movie also performs something of an examination of Tommy’s struggle with religion. It does this by expanding the role of Reverend Rufus, a childhood friend of Tommy’s who has become a man of God. The part is played by blaxploitation vet D’Urville Martin giving one of the better performances I’ve ever seen him give. If you’re familiar with him, you know that’s not really saying much, but he’s pretty good in this outing. He provides an interesting counterpoint to Tommy’s lifestyle, and effectively shows the struggle of a once-worldly man trying to do the right thing in a secular environment. Religion is also looked at through Tommy’s new love interest, Virginia (Myrna Hansen). She’s a church-going girl whom Tommy falls for. Despite the presence of Virginia, Helen still plays an important part in the film. Like in the first movie, a number of her scenes are the most uncomfortable to watch. She provides an interesting contrast to Virginia. However, because of the way her character is treated she becomes the most sympathetic person in the series.

Unfortunately, extending the plot of the first film proves to be too much to overcome. We like seeing how some of the details play out, but there is no tension derived from the overall story. It is just a repeat of its predecessor and never tries to hide the fact. Williamson is once again dynamic as Tommy, the supporting cast steps up its game, and there is some well done social commentary. They just can’t overcome the ‘been there, done that’ feeling it engenders. That also means that this time, the hijinks and shenanigans the film tries to pass off as action scenes aren’t as lovable as they were the first time. Hell Up in Harlem is not a bad film. I actually enjoyed it. It’s just one struggles more mightily than the original to overcome its shortcomings.

Click Below For More Reviews of Blaxploitation Flicks!


  1. I've never seen the Black Caesar films, or any of the Blaxpoitation flicks you listed afterwards. I fail.

    1. Lots of people haven't, so you're forgiven.

  2. I had seen Black Caesar YEARS ago but not the sequel but they played both of them back to back about a month ago and remembering that they were on your list somewhere I DVR'd them. Well....they were fun in a time warp way-it made me long for my puka beads!-and actiony but once was enough for me. His forcing Helen to have sex left a very bad taste behind, you're right about it reflecting attitudes of the time and I try and take that into account but some things are beyond the pale.

    Of the others you have listed I've seen Blacula and Friday Foster-bless Pam Grier so wasted in this junk but at least she managed to carve out a starring career at a time when that was nigh impossible for a black woman who couldn't sing and next to impossible for those that could.

    1. It's certainly a movie of its time. No doubt about that. As for the rape scene, I cringed while watching it and thought to myself "I bet this played differently 40 years ago."

      I don't think Pam Grier was wasted at all. Not only did she managed to carve out a starring career, but these are the movies that made her an icon. Besides, without these movies we never get Tarantino's Jackie Brown.

  3. I don't think it's possible to get much cooler than that.

  4. As you may know (from letterboxd) I've been catching up with blaxploitation over the summer. I'll post those reviews soon over at my blog. Black Caesar wasn’t in my top 5, though does have strong moments, particularly the beginning and end. Agree Fred Williamson delivers a fine lead performance, even if his character wasn’t easy to like. Probably my favorite part is a moving scene with his dad outside a church at the halfway mark which works well with the James Brown song. I won’t name the song title as it’s a spoiler! The forced sex is actually similar to a scene in Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and I felt uncomfortable in both instances.

    1. It's very, very similar to that scene in Once Upon a Time in America. I'm also uncomfortable with both. However, I must admit, Once Upon a Time in America is one of my all-time faves.