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Hardened, uncomprimising drug dealer Roemello Skuggs decides to quit his scumbag profession so he may start a new life with his girlfriend. However, he soon learns getting out is nowhere near as easy as getting in, as everything gradually builds up to end in tragedy. Written by
Warner Bros., Miramax Films and TriStar Pictures all passed on handling this film, before Twentieth Century Fox picked up the domestic distribution rights. See more »
Several times during the movie, a boom mic can be seen coming into the screen. See more »
Look Lolly, I think we need to call a truce. You don't hit my men, I won't hit yours. You don't hurt my brother... and I won't take your whole family. We'll work it out so you can get a piece of the action. Ok, chump? I mean champ. My word is bond.
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As titles for this film go, I prefer Sugar Hill to Harlem. The title Harlem speaks to where the characters are. The title Sugar Hill refers to an ideal that has been lost and may never be regained. Harlem would be a simplistic title for a simplistic movie, while Sugar Hill is an appropriate title for a movie that frequently aims high and sometimes succeeds. So you'll forgive me if if I refer to it as Sugar Hill in this review (plus, I'm not really sure where it was actually released as "Harlem").
Sugar Hill opens with a series of pictures of urban life in the Sugar Hill part of Harlem. Since the photos are all black and white and since the people look happy and middle class, we know that these pictures are of the way things used to be. We then meet our two "heroes," Raynathan and Romoello Skuggs, as children who stand by and watch as their mother ODs on heroin and dies before their eyes. Even though she was a junkie, their mom wished for great things for her sons, but as we move into the present, Roemello's voiceover tells the hard truth: "The boy you loved as become the man you feared." Roemello (Wesley Snipes) and Raynathan (Michael Wright) control the drug trade in a part of the borough. They live a ghetto fabulous lifestyle with fancy rayon suits and fine cars. They get nice tables at classy restaurants. But things are about to change. The local mafioso Gus (Abe Vigoda) is letting a new dealer (Ernie Hudson) move in on their turf. Roemello wants out, having seen what drugs did to his father (Clarence Williams III), once a promising musician, now a struggling drug addict. But Raynathan -- the less intelligent, but more emotional of the brothers -- wants to start a turf war. The film has a "B" story involving a romance between Roemello and a beautiful woman (Theresa Randle) who loves Roemello, but is affair to be around him.
Sugar Hill plays a bit like New Jack City (both movies were written by Barry Michael Cooper). At its best, it feels like a smarter and more mature film than Mario Van Peebles's classic modern blaxploitation film. There's a complexity to Sugar Hill that New Jack City lacked once it regressed into a cops-vs-gangsters story. There's no law in Sugar Hill, no Judd Nelson to mess things up with moralizing. In Sugar Hill we've only got bad and worse.
Snipes's Roemello rules over the city like a God, holding the fate of thousands in his hand. Director Leon Ichaso goes a little too far to make this point. Snipes is constantly shot on rooftops and verandas, anywhere he can look out on his kingdom and loom over it. As a visual metaphor, it's effective, but it sometimes places a little too broadly, which is at odds with Snipes's wonderful, internalized performance. Snipes is physically intimidating, but as an actor he has sufficient brains to carry the film. His Roemello is the ego to the id of New Jack City's Nino Brown.
Actually, the film is full of amazing performances accentuated by the script's willingness to stop the action to allow the characters to tell stories. As the burnout father, Clarence Williams III (that would be "Linc" from the original Mod Squad) is just amazing and the story he tells Raynathan as he's about to shoot up is a devastating show-stopper. Vigoda also gives a performance tempered by age, and also has a super monologue, where he remembers the way Harlem used to be. Michael Wright's Raynathan grows on you. At first the acting seems too manic, but when you realize that it's a cover for how deeply he depends on his brother, it gains depth and Wright carries the film's final twenty minutes. Randle is fine in her romantic moments, but becomes shrieky when the role calls for high-pitched emotion.
Sugar Hill goes on for too long. It runs over two hours and there's no excuse for that. The plot involving Ernie Hudson's ex-boxer (Hudson is also excellent playing against type here) has confusing moments and there are several peripheral mob characters whose roles are never fully explained. Theresa Randle also has a very strange and random encounter with a basketball star (Vondie Curtis-Hall) which seems to have been in the script for symbolic reasons that just don't pay off properly.
On the whole, Sugar Hill works for me because of the consistent aura of sadness which fills the film. This movie isn't anywhere near as fun as New Jack City. It's not flashy, it's somber. But it worked well enough for me to give is a 7/10 recommendation.
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