Movie Review – Hell Up in Harlem (1973)
by HELEN GEIB
I had reason to watch Hell Up In Harlem recently, a very minor entry in the roll of ‘seventies blaxploitation films. It’s not a movie you watch without a good reason. The miniscule budget is painfully obvious. The script, to the extent the movie isn’t a series of (sometimes pointless, always no budget) action scenes, is slapdash. The acting is horrid. Fred Williamson, who plays lead character “Black Caesar” has neither talent nor charisma. In short, it is a very bad film. It would be like kicking a man when he’s down to detail all of the reasons this movie is bad.
My reason for watching Hell Up In Harlem was that it was the monthly movie selection for my film club last month. The member who suggested it defended the selection with the cultural history argument. Thinking of the film as a primary source document from a cultural studies perspective made watching it a tolerable experience, though not one I’d recommend.
I was not interested enough to watch director Larry Cohen’s commentary track (does every release rate a commentary track now?). My film club friend assured me that Cohen not only knows his movie was bad, but devoted the commentary to describing how it was bad. He made it for the money and since he went on to have a lasting career in the film business, I assume the movie made a profit. Box office grosses cannot have needed to be very large to recover the investment.
Hell Up In Harlem provides ample confirmation of the feminist criticisms of blaxploitation films. [Spoiler warning for this paragraph: I reveal key plot points, so if you care, skip to the next paragraph.] There are two women characters. Both are consistently objectified as sexual objects. The first is Black Caesar’s former lover. He takes her two children, a boy and a girl, from her and she is reduced to working as a prostitute until she is murdered. The movie supplies a pretense of a plot-based motive for the abduction of the children, but it is essentially retaliation for sexual betrayal. The film has the gall to celebrate the removal of the children to gangster Caesar’s male-dominated household. Caesar drives off into the sunrise with the boy at the end of the film, while the girl is abandoned off-screen and without a thought to the care of the second woman, who also disappears from the story practically unnoticed. She exists in the film only to validate Caesar’s sexual prowess and show her breasts in a sex scene. The first woman doesn’t quite take her shirt off, although she is graphically felt up by the white villain in the backseat of a car. Cohen considerably undercuts the implicit condemnation of the villain in that scene by introducing the woman moments earlier in a transparent, form-fitting sweater. The camera feels her up first.
I am obviously not the target audience for this movie. My only prior exposure to blaxploitation was the dreadful remake of Shaft, which did not prompt me to seek out the original, and Mario Van Peebles’ excellent Baadasssss!. The latter is a tremendously enjoyable film and a nuanced, affectionate, clear-eyed and informative primer on Van Peebles’ father Melvin’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and its ilk.