THE SHAKESPEAREAN GANGSTA FILM
Early on in the film SUGAR HILL(1994) the film's lead Roemello Skuggs(Wesley Snipes) speaks to his dead mother telling her "The boy you loved has become the man you feared." We know via a brief prologue that Roemello and his brother Raynathan watched their mother overdose on heroin in the kitchen of their Lennox Ave apartment. The fact that they have grown up to become the drug kingpins of Harlem gives Reoemello's brief soliloquy a tragic beauty.
I first saw Sugar Hill in 1998 as I sat on my cousin's couch in the wake of a house party gone awry. Amid the beer cans and shattered commemorative plates that we would have to explain to my aunt I watched a film that I found mesmerizing. Apparently I was the minority when it come to that opinion, As of July 3rd Sugar Hill has a score of 20 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
I can't tell you to ignore that RT score but I can tell you that there are precious few African American gangster films that have the atmosphere or poetic narrative that Sugar Hill has. Did the reach of the filmmakers exceed their grasps? Possibly but to this day Sugar Hill stands as a beautiful disaster that takes the hood movie motif and tries to inject it with a heavy dose of pathos. It's like someone watched King Lear and Titus Andronicus and took out all the dismemberment and eye gouging and set it to a jazz score by Terence Blanchard.
Sugar Hill tells the story of drug kingpin Roemello Skuggs. A former honors student Roemello and his brother the volatile Raynathan , played with ferocious intensity by Michael C.Wright rule almost the entire drug trade in Harlem with the support of the Italian Mafia and capo Gus Molino. As a teenager Roemello gave up a scholarship to Georgetown after his father was beaten and shot by mob enforcer Sal Malino. A scene with a young Romello avenging his father by shooting Sal while wearing his private school blazer is both surreal and terrifying. The plot of the movie revolves around Roemello looking for a way out of the game and his brother Raynathan trying to desperately to hold on to his sibling. The chemistry between Snipes andWright is fraught with tension and affection. As is the relationship with many brothers.
When Roemello meets Melissa ,played by Teresa Randle , he decides to leave the criminal life for good. This decision sets in motion a series of events that ends in tragedy and tears but also ultimately redemption.
Sugar Hill is a gorgeously shot movie that boast incredible cinematography by Bojan Bazelli
who also did the deed for The King of New York and Deep Cover. He gives the film a lush hypnotic diaphanous look that contrast it's brutal and often shocking violence. Screenwriter Barry Michael Cooper structures the film like a play with characters delivering long sweeping monologues set against iconic New York City landscapes. While his dialogue can seem overwrought it's his themes that captivated the English major in me. Love , betrayal , death and friendship. Cooper creates scenes that are bombastic and emotional , mainstays of Shakespeare's work. Other common traits and elements that define a Shakespearean tragedy are here on full display. The fatal flaw, the paradox of life. Ambition and revenge and finally catharsis. Other films have adapted and explored these themes with a bit more nuance but none of them had Wesley Snipes sporting a full length leather coat by Versace over a suit by Armani. Sugar Hill embraced the mythology of the drug kingpin as businessman then turned that myth on it's head with it's tragic ending. It showed how naive Roemello is when it comes to who he is and how he plies his trade. Raynathan is the Tybalt of this drama, all nervous energy and unbridled rage that hides a damaged soul.
For me as a young African American male in 1998 seeing Sugar Hill was a jarring experience. It showed a world(Harlem) that was as alien to me as the religious penitents I saw in Shocking Asia. I saw black men who weren't presented as the buffoonish sidekicks but were actually the principal characters with agency and attitude.
That their story ends in despair was never the point. The point was and is , it was THEIR story set to the rhythms of one of the greatest writers to ever put quill pen to paper. Sugar Hill inspired me through it's magnificent failure. It showed me that stories filled with people who looked like me could try to scale that mountain that carries a film out of the valley of exploitation and caricature and into the land of true timeless art.
For that young , stupid, commemorative plate breaking Shawn will always be grateful.