Novelist Chester Himes's best work displays a raffish energy, infusing the detective genre with style and flash. Unfortunately, A RAGE IN HARLEM, based on the Himes novel, displays none of those qualities, coming across like a middle-aged square laboring to be hip by donning a leisure
The film begins in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1956, where a gang, led by Slim (Badja Djola), absconds with a trunk full of gold. During a police shootout, Slim's girl Imabelle (Robin Givens) escapes with the gold, heading to Harlem to sell it to their Harlem connection, Easy-Money (Danny Glover).
Arriving in Harlem broke and unable to pay for a room, Imabelle seduces shy and nerdy Jackson (Forest Whitaker) in order to have him put her up for the night. Jackson, who works as an accountant in a funeral home, becomes immediately infatuated with her and becomes distraught when Slim and the
gang suddenly appear in Harlem and take off with Imabelle and the gold. Jackson, in desperate straits, enlists the help of his half-brother, street con man Goldy (Gregory Hines) and his pal, transvestite Big Kathy (Zakes Mokae), to help him find Imabelle. Goldy agrees on the condition that he gets
to keep the gold and Jackson gets to keep the girl.
After a series of chases and escapes, one in which Big Kathy is killed, there is a big shootout in Easy-Money's office, where all the supporting players are killed, permitting a final chase between Imabelle, Slim, Jackson and Goldy. During a fight with Jackson, Imabelle shoots Slim, then
disappears. Jackson later is given a key to a box at the Harlem train station where Imabelle has stashed the gold converted to cash. Jackson takes half the money and boards the southbound train, finding Imabelle. Goldy, ecstatically clutching a wad of money on the train platform, gleefully tells
all the women he can find that he is rich.
A RAGE IN HARLEM is the kind of film that, every ten minutes or so, requires violent bloodshed or a sexual rendezvous to prevent audiences from becoming glassy-eyed and slack-jawed--the direction by Bill Duke and screenplay by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford fails in so many ways that a violent
charge is required. For a detective yarn or thriller to be successful, the script must be tight, steadily propelling the narrative forward to the solution of the mystery or the resolution of the conflict. But A RAGE IN HARLEM spends almost half the film jump-starting the plot, dwelling on the
unconvincing relationship between Jackson and Imabelle.
Goldy does not truly appear on the scene until after Imabelle's abduction, whereupon he becomes top dog in tracking her down, while Imabelle's role in the drama is relegated to little more than a prop, Givens's performance consisting of walking backwards while various characters pull her along.
The screenplay also diffuses the final shootout by having last-minute rescues recur with impunity throughout the film. No character in the film ever extricates himself from a situation on his own, but is saved by the sudden appearance of a gun barrel pointed at the perpetrator's noggin by a
previously unseen character in the scene.
Actor-turned-director Bill Duke (AMERICAN GIGOLO, PREDATOR) makes the transfer to features after helming episodes of such TV fodder as "Knots Landing," "Falcon Crest" and "Hunter." Not suprisingly, the direction is derivative of television cop shows and climaxes as if a commercial were about to
occur. Duke also fails to recreate the 50s Harlem milieu, so important in Himes's novels and successfully conveyed in previous Himes film adaptations, particularly COTTON COMES TO HARLEM. The 50s New York Harlem depicted in A RAGE IN HARLEM creates less an impression of a jivey Harlem than a
third-rate version of Guys and Dolls.
Increasingly, the banality--and huge profitability--of most TV fare is influencing the films that are made and distributed by Hollywood. A RAGE IN HARLEM may add excessive violence, profanity and sex to the mix, but the result is still lifeless. Instead of the "rage" in Harlem being excitment and
danger, the "rage" in A RAGE IN HARLEM is the raging banality of Hollywood. (Excessive violence, profanity, nudity.)
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