A Rage in Harlem
April 23, 2021
1 Hr., 55 Mins.
ill Duke’s A Rage in Harlem (1991) opens in Natchez, Miss., in 1956. We’re led into a countryside shack. There, a deal between a Black gunman named Slim (Badja Djola), his associates, and a white mob type is being cut over gold. It unravels. Not only does the latter not agree to the terms he had promised, but he has also called the police, who soon swarm the place. A shootout explodes. Most parties go scathed, but not
Imabelle (Robin Givens), Slim’s prodigiously beautiful moll who tagged along. Seeing an opportunity, she decides to forego the hiding-and-waiting routine and instead drives off in the car whose trunk teems with very thing being fought over. With just $4 to her name, Imabelle lands in Harlem, prophecizing a bargain with local numbers king Easy Money (Danny Glover).
Two additional complications surface. Slim survived; a desire for vengeance now quickens his heartbeat. Imabelle, meanwhile, falls in love unexpectedly. She meets the man of her dreams — a shy, religious, and childishly innocent mortician named Jackson (Forest Whitaker) — by happenstance at the annual Harlem Undertaker’s Ball. With Screamin’ Jay Hawkins howling “I Put a Spell on You” in the background, Imabelle gets to talking with this almost obnoxiously harmless man and figures she can convince him to let her stay at his place free until her finances sturdy. She knows she can trust him when, after spilling a drink on her by accident, he’s not thinking lecherously as he frantically blots her soaked arms and chest with his handkerchief.
Oblivious that this woman in red is in a kind of convoluted trouble that runs deeper than mere homelessness, Jackson agrees to her proposition. Come morning, Imabelle notices, to her surprise, that she doesn’t want this relationship to be merely transactional. She’s charmed by the cute virtuousness of this man-child that keeps photos of his late mother and Jesus Christ above his bed. When she decides to seduce him, it isn’t merely a show of gratitude but an invitation to something bigger.
Jackson and Imabelle’s outwardly mismatched romance forms the emotional core of A Rage in Harlem, itself an adaptation of Chester Himes’ novel. It’s also its most dependably compelling, lucid characteristic. The film becomes overly miry with conflict and characters once the brawling over the gold between Slim and co., Easy Money and his people, and Imabelle (who is eventually kidnapped by Slim) really gets going. Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, Himes’ recurring detective characters, also get in the mix and are played, respectively, by Stack Pierce and George Wallace. Once Imabelle turns distressed damsel, Jackson has to team up with his more rollicking, semi-estranged con-man brother, Goldie (Gregory Hines). The movie is often referred to as a comedy, though I didn’t notice it laboring to be funny; I didn’t hear any obvious jokes. (The dialogue, in keeping with Himes’ prose, scintillates with toughness instead.) There’s just so much going on that it has a topsy-turviness, and sometimes when a movie has a lot of energy and vigor a surplus of life is mistaken for humor.
After a while I stopped watching A Rage in Harlem looking for a thrill via the narrative and more for its handsome period atmosphere. I didn’t mind this change of heart. Like Himes’ oeuvre, the film does a great job summoning the vibrant milieu it's situated in; we enjoy simply soaking it all in. The storyline doesn’t have to be tightly wound for us to find something to savor. The ensemble draws us in, too. Not an actor feels ill-considered — you remember the movie more for its performances than where its narrative takes you. In the film’s key role, Givens, who I wish was in more movies, particularly sizzles as the requisite femme fatale; she gets more interesting as Imabelle’s heart softens. Whitaker, who also produced, finds a sweetness in Jackson that doesn’t cloy. A Rage in Harlem wouldn’t work if they appeased the more caricatured elements of their characters. Givens and Whitaker, though, eke out depth, and with them at the front of the ship the movie never loses vitality. B+