Tuesday, April 5, 2016

A Rage In Harlem (1991) Stylish Soul Noir/Black Comedy

Stylishly directed by Bill Duke, with screenplay by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford based on Chester Himes novel "For the Love of Imabelle". Beautiful cinematography by Toyomichi Kurita. Music by Elmer Bernstein and Jeff Vincent. The film looks great thanks to the Production Design by Steven Legler,  Art Direction by Nina Ruscio and Set Decoration by K.C. Fox.

Title Sequence illustrating The Harlem Renaissance


A  Rage In Harlem stars a large ensemble cast, Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Robin Givens, Zakes Mokae, Danny Glover, Badja Djola, John Toles-Bey, Tyler Collins, Ron Taylor, Stack Pierce, Claude X, Reynaldo Rey, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, George Wallace and many many more.

The Players

Imabelle (Givens)
Imabelle (Givens) Jackson (Whitaker)
Goldy (Hines)

Easy Money (Glover)

Big Kathy (Mokae)
Blind Man (Rey) Claude X (Pugh)

Gravedigger (Wallace) lt. Coffin Ed (Pierce) rt.

Slim (Djola)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins

This film is loosely based on Chester Himes first "Harlem Cycle" novel "For The Love of Imabelle" The novel (I haven't read it yet so this is from various reviews) is basically about Jackson who works for an undertaker and his scheming girlfriend Imabelle who  sets him up in a confidence scam run by Imabelle's common law husband, the gang leader Slim. Jackson gets his brother Goldie, another con artist and police stoolie to get cops Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones to track down his girlfriend and the money.

Imabelle arrives at the Fleabag Hotel
hotel desk

Imabelle's flop
The film has greatly expanded the original basic plot almost to the point of ridiculousness. Imabelle (Givens), a hottie and the Femme Fatale of dubious morals, is now a member Slim's Natchez, Mississippi based gang  and the main squeeze of Slim (Djola). The gang has stolen a chest of large gold nuggets and is in the process of fencing them off for cash when a shootout with the police occurs. Imabelle is able to hop in the 49 Chevy pickup and drive off with the chest while the bullets are flying. She heads to Harlem by train where she knows she can trade the gold for folding money. In Harlem she checks into a fleabag hotel and attempts to unload the nuggets to whoever in the Harlem Mob can come up with the jack. She meets numerous underworld characters, Easy Money (Glover) a numbers boss who fronts a ballroom dance hall, Goldy (Hines) who is a con man, Big Kathy (Mokae) who is a transvestite and runs a whorehouse.

Jackson (Whitaker) is a heavy set square John who wears glasses, religiously says his prayers every night, and works for a funeral parlor. He meets Imabelle at Easy Money's ballroom, and when Imabelle needs a safer haven than the hotel she shacks up with virgin Jackson. After Imabelle shows Jackson around the world He becomes hopelessly devoted to her.

Jackson saying his prayers

Imabelle's seduction of Jackson

When Slim and his Mississippi gang show up all hell breaks loose between them, the Harlem hoodies. and the two NYPD detectives Coffin Ed (Pierce) and Gravedigger Jones (Wallace).

Big Kathy's whorehouse

The film's biggest flaw is the immensity of the cast, with so many characters it's hard to get them all adequately fleshed out, and they are so tantalizingly intriguing that you wish that somehow they could have been. Two additional problems is first the needless complication of the original tale, and second the sometimes heavy handed see-saw swings between comedy and seriousness. It may have worked better if it was handled in a more picaresque manner.

It takes it's place alongside other Noir-ish comedies, spoofs, and satires, i.e., Delicatessen (1991), The Big Lebowski (1998), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), Seven Beauties (1975), After Hours (1985), Barton Fink (1991), Pennies From Heaven (1981), Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), Something Wild (1986), Serial Mom (1994)

On the plus side the film is very stylistic, homaging both Film Noir and The Harlem Renaissance artwork of Archibald Motley and others, it's beautiful to look at. It does NOIR better than it's companion piece Devil With A Blue Dress (1995). An extra bonus is the performance by Screamin Jay Hawkins at the Undertaker's Ball. Cincinnati Ohio's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood fills in nicely for 1950's Harlem.


The screencaps are from the Echo Bridge Home Entertainment DVD. could have been even better, 7/10.

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