A RAGE IN HARLEM
(director: Bill Duke; screenwriters: novel by Chester Himes/John Toles Bey/Bobby Crawford; cinematographer: Toyomicichi Kurita; editor: Curtiss Clayton; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Forest Whitaker (Jackson), Gregory Hines (Goldy), Robin Givens (Imabelle), Danny Glover (Easy Money), Badja Djola (Slim), John Toles Bey (Jodie), Zakes Mokae (Big Kathy), Samm-Art Williams (Gus Parsons),Helen Martin (Mrs. Canfield), Willard E. Pugh (Claude X), Stack Pierce (Coffin Ed Johnson), George Wallace (Grave Digger Jones), Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (Himself), John Seitz (Lester), John W. Hardy(Rev Gaines), Reynaldo Rey (Blind Man), Leonard Jackson (Mr. Clay, mortuary owner); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Kerry Boyle/Stephen Woolley; Miramax; 1991)
“It bleeds for a kind of Harlem justice, as its intense black characters act tough, nasty, sexy, twisty, heroic and lively.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz &
Though it takes its liberties with the Chester Himes pulp novel, as it moves his tough guy black cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (George Wallace & Stack Pierce) into a small role from their prior starring roles, the delicious screenplay by John Toles Bey and Bobby Crawford goes down well as it outlandishly mixes comedy and violence in a 1956 period crime drama. Director Bill Duke(“Deep Cover”/”The Cemetery Club”/”Hoodlum”) keeps it fast-paced, cartoonishly violent, stylish and gruesomely humorous. It bleeds for a kind of Harlem justice, as its intense black characters act tough, nasty, sexy, twisty, heroic and lively.
Gullible, pudgy, virgin, Jesus worshiping, mama’s boy Harlem mortuary accountant Jackson (Forest Whitaker) is lured into giving shelter to the scheming Mississippi sexpot Imabelle (Robin Givens), who arrived in Harlem on-the-run and penniless but with a trunkful of gold stolen by her vicious boyfriend’s gang off a truck. The resourceful Imabellestole the trunk while boyfriend Slim (Badja Djola) was involved in a gunfight with the sheriff and his deputies. Slim and his knife-wielding assassin Jodie (John Toles Bey) survive the shootout with the crooked Mississippi lawmen after trying to fence the gold with the crooked white man Lester (John Seitz), who is warned by the black gang that “he picked the wrong niggers to call niggers.” The gang soon locate Imabelle living in Jackson’s humble Harlem apartment and put the squeeze on her to turn over the gold. That leads to Slim working a deal with reptilian Harlem dog-lover numbers crime boss Easy Money (Danny Glover) to exchange hard currency for the gold. When Jackson’s estranged stepbrother Goldy (Gregory Hines), the black-sheep of the religious family, a number rackets runner and conman, learns of the gold and his stepbrother being suckered into being a patsy in the gang’s scheme, he makes a deal with his bro to rescue his love interest Imabelle from Slim’s gang in exchange for him keeping the gold. Transvestite cathouse operator Big Kathy (Zakes Mokae) is called on by Goldy to help take down the bad boys. There are a few too many ensuing plot twists, the pacing is a bit off and the excessive violence might be a turnoff to some.
This is a follow-up to the Himes film adaptations of Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972). It’s enjoyable as pulp and, despite its overload on sleaze, unpleasant comedy, stilted editing and graphic cartoonish violence, in the end it satisfactorily promotes old-fashioned love as a virtue and redeems itself.
Givens is fair as the seductress, but the limited actress sweats her cues too hard to convince us of her coyness. Badja Djola is the pic’s chilling villain, who is perfectly cast. The pic is, however, carried by the mannered performance of Whitaker, who gives his meaning-well bumbling character enough charm to come off as the pic’s one good guy worth rooting for. The dazzling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins performs a memorable version of his standard hit I Put a Spell on You, which was the pic’s most nostalgic moment.
REVIEWED ON 8/3/2013 GRADE: B