Classic Soul Cinema: ‘Hell Up In Harlem’

Hell Up in Harlem posterMost moviegoers thought crime lord Tommy Gibbs (played by Fred Williamson) was a goner at the end of the movie Black Caesar, as a group of kids robbed him in the neighborhood he grew up in. He may have been down but not out.

The sequel to the film, Hell Up In Harlem, was released in December 1973 and picked up where its predecessor left off. A badly wounded Tommy Gibbs escaped an assassination attempt on his life by the corrupt district attorney DiAngelo with the help of his estranged father, Papa Gibbs (played by the late veteran actor Julius Harris). Papa Gibbs decides to join forces with his son’s criminal organization to exact revenge on those that tried to kill Tommy. This doesn’t sit too well with Tommy’s top henchman, Zach (played by Tony King). As Tommy and Papa build up their criminal empire, Zach two-faces them by allying himself with DiAngelo. Zach does all he can to turn Tommy’s world upside down, even murdering Tommy’s traitorous ex-wife Helen (Gloria Hendry) and pins the murder on Papa in order to split up the bond between Tommy and Papa. Grief stricken, Tommy gives up his New York crime operation and heads off to California, while Papa takes over the operation only to get killed by Zach during a fistfight. Tommy returns to New York with a vengeance and, upon finding out Zach was behind all the mayhem, settles the score with him and DiAngelo once and for all.

Hell Up In Harlem delivers a lot of action, much more than Black Casesar, and it did extremely well at the box office. It also delivered a great score recorded by Motown artist Edwin Starr and produced by Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell, who were part of the Corporation producing team that wrote and produced The Jackson 5’s early hits. James Brown, who did the score for Black Caesar, was set to do the score for Hell Up In Harlem, but negotiations fell through and Motown came aboard.

The whole heart and soul of the film is the compelling father and son theme in which Papa Gibbs was estranged from his son most of his life but comes back into his son’s life when he needs him most. It is indeed a rare film in which a father and son team up to combat against the forces that try to pull them apart. It illustrates the importance of a father being there for his son in the worst of times.

-Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer/performer, Soul Train historian and soul music and movie historian. He is also a former Soul Train dancer. He is featured in the new Soul Train documentary Show Me Your Soul and is also featured in the new book Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of America’s Favorite Dance Show Soul Train by Ericka Blount Danois which is available on Amazon and in bookstores.

One Comment

  1. 60's Babygirl says:

    A Classic!

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