Movie Review: A Rage in Harlem (1991)

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In the literary world of crime fiction & urban street literature, author Chester Bomar Himes is in a writer’s class all by himself. He has not only managed to win France’s coveted Grand Prix de Littérature Policière award for his craft, he also took us for some one-of-a-kind rides into the
edgy and darkly humorous underworld of Harlem in his many detective novels; usually headlined by Black detectives “Coffin Ed Johnson” and “Gravedigger Jones”. Encompassing 8 books in all (the ninth one being unfinished) readers become enriched into a world that only a great writer like Himes, or maybe Raymond Chandler would create. Despite the many enjoyable plot twisting romps, three of the books from this series were adapted into feature films; with 1991’s “A Rage in Harlem”, directed by Bill Duke (in his feature film directorial début) and loosely based on the first novel (For Love of Imabelle) in Himes’ “Harlem Detective” series,
being one of them.

After her gangster boyfriend, Slim (Badja Djola), has a shootout with the police, Imabelle (Robin Givens) flees Natchez, Miss., with a trunk load of his stolen gold. She ends up New York, unaware that the rest of the gang, and a few other unsavory characters, are on her trail. In
Harlem, she latches on to an innocent undertaker named Jackson (Forest Whitaker), who takes her in and falls in love with her. When the Mississippi mobsters finally show up, Jackson must enlist the help of his streetwise brother, Goldy (Gregory Hines), to save the girl.

Giving credit where credit is due, the film is stylishly directed by Bill Duke, with a screenplay by John Toles-Bey (who co-stars as one of Slim’s cronies, Jodie) and Bobby Crawford that greatly expands (for better or worse) the original basic plot by shifting focus from Himes’ detective duo
to the “heroes”, villains, and other colorful characters that makes up this film’s version of 1950s- era Harlem, NY. (as portrayed by the largely ungentrified Cincinnati neighborhood, Over-the- Rhine, due to budgetary restraints of the production).

On the downside of things, the changes from page to screen does come at the cost of the film being a bit all over the place with its tone, plot, and script changing from scene to scene. At its core, it is ostensibly a dark comedy, though it is a bit too violent to be funny, and a bit too light
(like a goofier version of “Harlem Nights”) to be dark. The plot is really confusing, while the characterization is really simple. However, it is still a really fun film, the firmly rests on the shoulders of Forest Whitaker’s performance, and because a good section of the runtime focuses
on Robin Givens as a sexy femme fatale, which she pulls off with aplomb, in a role that is relatively larger than her literary counterpart. The late great Gregory Hines is also in top form as Whittaker’s brother, who is only interested in the gold at first. The underrated, sorely missed Badja Djola plays a memorably vicious villain and Danny Glover pops up as a rival gangster who “had another dream” about Givens – much to the fury of Djola.

All in all, while the film is a crime neo-noir that doesn’t contain the brilliance of “Devil in the Blue Dress”, or more so the voracious bite of Bill Duke’s sophomore feature film effort (the neo- noir crime drama “Deep Cover”), and occasionally ends up looking like a bit like a more violent version of “Dick Tracy”, it is still a fun time to be had. So, if you like extreme violence, black humor, and neo-noir gangster movies, this underrated 90s gem should work for you.

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