Review by Valjeanne Jeffers
Sugar Hill (1974) is a cult classic, a gem of the Blaxplotation era, and among a small cadre of flicks, such as Blacula, that combined horror with commentary on racism and oppression. Movies of the 1970s were resoundingly pro-black, and nothing if not conscious.
The movie begins with a Voudon dance performance, and an introduction to Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a photographer who is engaged to club owner, “Langston” (Larry Don Johnson). Unfortunately, a local gangster “Mr. Morgan,” (Robert Quarry) has his heart set on buying Langston’s popular Club Haiti. When Langston refuses to sell, Morgan sends his thugs to murder him. Sugar asks the matriarch of her family, “Mama Maitresse,” (Zara Cully) a Vodoun Priestess, to help her take revenge. After much pleading, Mama Maitresse agrees and calls upon the powerful Loa, Baron Samedi. Together Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colly), Sugar and an army of Zombies slaughter Sugar’s enemies.
Sugar is a sexy, charismatic heroine. The Baron himself is surprised by her boldness, “You’re not afraid of me!” It is this fearlessness that sways him to grant her wish for vengeance and place an army of zombies at her disposal. She is the original Blaxploitation feminist. Strong, and self-possessed: a butt-kicking mama, who is ready and willing to take care of business; even if it means spilling blood. Yet, as was often characteristic of 1970s movies, Sugar is all too willing to give her heart to the right man. When her former lover, appropriately named “Valentine” (Richard Lawson) gets too close to solving the murders, Sugar tells Baron Samedi, “Stop him but don’t kill him,” for she’s already falling back in love with him.
This movie is rich with archetypes of the African Diaspora. Morgan and his cronies are virulent racists who throw around the word “coon,” and other racial slurs. His only black employee “Fabulous” (Charles Robinson) accepts their treatment with a tolerant grin; although ironically he is second-in-command to Morgan. Destroying Morgan and his men is a symbolic blow against oppression.
Sugar’s slain lover’s name, “Langston,” subtly alludes to the famed African American writer and poet, Langston Hughes. Baron Samedi is a powerful Voudon Loa, usually found at the crossroad between the worlds of the living and the dead, with a taste for tobacco and rum. In Sugar Hill, he’s artfully portrayed, right down to his cigar and top hat. Beside the Baron, stands Mama Maitresse. Mama Maitresse is over 100 years old. She depicts the honored elder: ancient and revered. The zombies Sugar commands, are actually slaves, who have been resurrected from the dead. There are repeated references to slavery throughout the movie.
And Morgan’s men don’t just go after black folks. They bully and exploit anyone that stands in their way—black, white and Latina. Thus, Sugar Hill portrays a struggle between the powerful and powerless. During a scene when one of Morgan’s men extorts money from a group of seamen, “You’ll pay for your jobs,” he bellows, “or starve!” Baron Samedi stands nearby, looking none too pleased. Moments later, Sugar is there. “Hey!” she says, “you and friends killed my man! I’m passing sentence. And the sentence is death.” At her command, the zombies chop him up—with machetes no less.
Sugar Hill holds its own among the best Black Horror films of the70s, films like Blacula and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. The chemistry between the characters, excellent typecasting and acting, make thoroughly enjoyable viewing, even beside the slick special effects of the 21st century. Filmmakers of today could take a page or two from Sugar Hill, and others from the 1970s. Especially if they want to create a thriller with a message.
Valjeanne Jeffers is a graduate of Spelman College, a member of the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective, and the author of eight books.
Valjeanne was featured in 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction. Her first novel, Immortal, is featured on the Invisible Universe Documentary time-line. Her stories have been published in Reflections Literary and Arts Magazine; Steamfunk!; Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology; Genesis Science Fiction Magazine; Griots II: Sisters of the Spear; Possibilities; and The City. Book I of The Switch II: Clockwork was nominated for the best ebook novella of 2013 (eFestival of Words), and her short story Awakening was published as a podcast by Far Fetched Fables. Preview or purchase Valjeanne’s novels at www.vjeffersandqveal.com