Tommy Gibbs (Fred Williamson) is an African-American who grew up in Harlem, New York City. As a kid, he was brutally assaulted by a cop named McKinney. The incident led him to a life of crime. As an adult, he joins New York mafia and becomes the head of a black crime syndicate in Harlem. He wages a gang war with the Italian mobsters of New York City and begins to establish a criminal empire, keeping a ledger book of all his dealings as leverage over his business associates, including McKinney.
He meets and falls in love with a singer named Helen (Gloria Hendry) and marries her. She is unhappy as he is violent and rapes her. Eventually his enemies conspire with her, leading to an attempt on his life that leaves him shot and wounded. Killing his would-be assassins, he returns to his office to retrieve the ledger book. McKinney meets him there, and attempts to humiliate him before killing him. Tommy overpowers McKinney and beats him to death. Retrieving the ledger, a badly wounded Tommy returns to the house where he grew up, but a street gang attacks, robs and, presumably, kills him.Fred Williamson – Tommy Gibbs
Gloria Hendry – Helen Bradley
Art Lund – McKinney
D'Urville Martin – Reverend Rufus
Julius Harris – Mr. Gibbs
Minnie Gentry – Mama Gibbs
Philip Roye – Joe Washington
William Wellman Jr. – Alfred Coleman
James Dixon – Bryant
Val Avery – Cardoza
Patrick McAllister – Grossfield
Don Pedro Colley – Crawdaddy
Myrna Hansen –Virginia Coleman
Omer Jeffrey – Tommy as a boy
Michael Jeffrey – Joe as a boy
The film script was originally commissioned by Sammy Davis Jr. According to Larry Cohen, Davis "wanted to do a picture in which he was the star, instead of being a flunky to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. So I suggested that they do a gangster movie like Little Caesar, since he was a little guy, and so was Jimmy Cagney, and so was Edward G. Robinson. And I thought he could play a little hoodlum working his way up in the Harlem underworld."
Cohen wrote a treatment for $10,000 but when he finished Davis Jr could not pay due to some trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Then Cohen was approached by Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures, who were interested in doing an action film that could star a black actor. Cohen produced the treatment he had written for Davis and AIP agreed to finance.
Most of the film was shot in New York although some interiors were filmed in Los Angeles.
Fred Williamson was cast in the lead. Cohen says, "Fred was totally different than what Sammy would have played, because Fred was a handsome leading man. He looked great in the clothes, and he looked great in that hat that I put on him. And he could strut through Harlem, and he looked like the Godfather of Harlem."
Cohen says when he filmed in Harlem the local gangsters threatened to disrupt the shoot unless they were paid off. He offered them small roles in the film instead. "These guys were great," he said. "Anything we wanted, anything we needed to get, they got for me. We kind of owned Harlem after that. And then when the picture finally opened, I put them in the poster too, so that the advertisements in the paper had these guys in it. And opening day at the Cinerama Theater on Broadway, these gangsters were down there in front of the theater signing autographs."
The Harlem film sequence was directed by James Signorelli, later to go on to producing films on Saturday Night Live.
The movie received a mostly positive reception. In 2009 Empire named it eighteenth in a poll of the "20 Greatest Gangster Movies You've Never Seen* (*Probably)".
Cohen says "The picture did so well that they called me immediately and said, “You’d better get a sequel going before these actors decide they want an enormous amount of money to reappear.” So I said, “You know I don’t have a script, but I can start shooting something, and make it up as I go along.” That’s more or less what we did." The result was Hell Up in Harlem.
Some of James Brown's songs used in the film were sampled by prominent rap musicians - Das EFX and Ice-T ("The Boss" which is the background music where Tommy Gibbs is shot while crossing a street corner was sampled for Ice-T's "You Played Yourself", and also for Trick Daddy's "Take It To Da House"). More recently, by The Alchemist for Prodigy's album Return of the Mac. The song is also sampled on Nas' album God's Son on "Get Down".
The film is name-checked in Public Enemy's song "Burn Hollywood Burn"; when the cinema announces the movie to be Driving Miss Daisy, guest rapper Big Daddy Kane suggests leaving, saying "I got Black Caesar back at the crib." Kane makes another reference to the movie in his song "How U Get A Record Deal". Kool Keith references the main character in the song "Keith Turbo" from Black Elvis/Lost in Space: "Take off your shirt; I can see your ribs; Fakin' like Tommy Gibbs."In 2001 it was released on DVD.
In 2010 it was digitized in High Definition (1080i) and broadcast on MGM HD.