Black Caesar& Hell Up in Harlem

Directed by Larry Cohen in 1973, Black Caesar was a classic rise and fall of a gangster tale, whose structure borrowed more than a little from Little Caesar.

It proved a huge hit with Blaxploitation fans. Some NYC cinemas ran the film almost continuously all day long. Even during the freezing cold of a Big Apple winter, film-goers were prepared to queue round the block for a chance to see it when it first hit screens early 1973.

They loved the action, filmed with a high-octane pizzazz by Cohen. They loved Fred Williamson’s charisma in the lead role of Tommy Gibbs, a man who works his way up from ghetto kid to Harlem’s Gangsta Number 1. They also loved the soundtrack supplied by the Godfather of Soul Mr James Brown.

The accompanying album is uneven but tracks like The Boss and Make It Good To Yourself are among the most infuriatingly funky tracks to appear on any slice of soul cinema. Here is James Brown with one of the most sampled songs ever recorded:

Such was the box office success of Black Caesar that American International Pictures demanded a follow-up ASAP and Cohen was roped in to craft a sequel.

Hell Up in Harlem? Well, it’s a mess in places, oozing with cliches and a plot that you might imagine was made up as the filmmakers went along.

In reality it was.

The circumstances behind the making of the movie were far from ideal. Cohen had to film it while he was also making It’s Alive! for Warner Bros.
Not only that but Fred Williamson could only participate at weekends as he was shooting That Man Bolt for Universal on Monday through to Fridays.
A logistical nightmare. Many of the same crew were employed on both films and sometimes, presumably when Williamson’s body double was being utilised, shooting on both projects took place on the same day.

It’s little wonder that the movie makes little sense at times. There are some batshit crazy moments and inconsistencies. Be warned: your suspension of disbelief must be extraordinary if you are to enjoy the film without questioning its plot.

Just take the accelerated character arc of Tommy’s father, Papa Gibbs. In record breaking time he moves from an ageing, benign and law-abiding citizen to badass crime boss, ditching his shirt and tie along the way and embracing some peacock pimp chic threads.

Despite having avoided his own boy for years on end, the suddenly judgmental old hypocrite takes a sadistic glee in banning his son’s ex-Helen from ever seeing her children again, claiming she’s a bad mother.

And I should explain, I literally mean a bad mother and not the kind of bad mother James Brown sings about in The Boss.

Another problem was the soundtrack.

Unbeknown to the AIP bosses, James Brown had messed up the lengths of music required despite being given a print of the picture and exact timings for each of the scenes where his input was required. A music editor had to be brought on board to help Cohen cut and edit each and every music cue until they could fit with the scene. Not an easy task.

AIP were unaware of this and happily hired Brown to score another of their movies, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off.

Again the Godfather of Soul messed up his timings but didn’t have Cohen to cover up his mistake this time around.

AIP were so pissed off that they refused to use him again and considered legal action against him. Despite this, Brown created another spec score but although Larry Cohen rated it, AIP still wouldn’t use it. These tracks ended up on The Payback, a #1 on the soul charts and his only album to be certified gold.

Luckily, since the success of Isaac Hayes’ influential score for Shaft, followed by Curtis Mayfield’s amazing job on Super Fly, just about every major soul artist was all too keen to jump on board the blaxploitation bandwagon.

Edwin Starr was invited to supply a score. And Edwin certainly delivered. Presumably with the correct timings.

Sampled by Ice-T on 1988’s High Rollers, this is Easin’ In:

For more on Larry Cohen: http://www.larrycohenfilmmaker.com/