Sultry, sensational Givens surpasses hectic plot and sadistic violence

'A RAGE IN HARLEM'

May 03, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'A Rage in Harlem'

Starring Forest Whitaker and Robin Givens.

Directed by Bill Duke.

Released by Miramax.

Rated R.

** 1/2 Crude and energetic, Bill Duke's "A Rage in Harlem" recalls the somewhat ambivalent days of the early '70s when, however briefly and for whatever motivation, black culture moved to the center of American film culture in the violent urban genre known generally as "blaxploitation."

"A Rage in Harlem," of course, has a tonier pedigree than "Above 125th" or "Skipchaser" or any of the works of Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree or Isaac Hayes; it has a literary antecedent, sharing the best of the blaxploitation pictures' derivation from the works of Chester Himes, a novelist who exiled himself to Paris where he wrote vibrant police procedurals set in Harlem and featuring two tough cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones.

But it has the same mixture of violence, sex and sadism, the same antic spirit, the same sense of danger. It also has been subtly upgraded for the '90s, though it retains its '50s setting. For one thing, Coffin Ed and Gravedigger aren't at the center of the piece; they're strictly marginal characters, and are seen somewhat as Uncle Toms, doing The Man's work uptown, rather than as the heroes they were in their previous incarnations, "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and "Come Back, Charleston Blue."

The story is focused instead on a variety of peripheral characters, which leads to its first eccentricity. It doesn't seem to know who its hero is, and powerful figures come in and out of it somewhat randomly, yet not until the end do we really commit emotionally to one.

JTC The story is set in motion when a well-armed gang knocks over an ore company in the deep South and escapes with a trunkful of unrefined gold. Selling the material to a fence, the gang finds itself betrayed and sets out to right this wrong with large amounts of hot lead. A survivor of this shootout is the gang leader's moll, Imabelle, played by Robin Givens, who makes it up to Harlem with the trunk and sets about to find a buyer.

Givens is sensational. Well-shed of the goody-goody image from "Head of the Class," she's transmogrified herself into a sultry Monroe-esque sex devil with a red dress on.

Seeking shelter for the night, she hooks up with a meek, God-fearing undertaker's assistant, played by Forest Whitaker, while she sets about to find the Harlem gangster Easy Money (a lisping Danny Glover) with whom to do business. Meanwhile and suddenly, the other surviving gang members, led by the charismatic Slim (Badja Djola), show up in search of their gold and their woman.

The plotting is hectic. Whitaker soon involves his half-brother, small-time crook Goldy, Gregory Hines, who in turn involves his friend, the transvestite madam Big Kathy, played by the distinguished South African actor Zakes Mokae. And Coffin Ed and Gravedigger (Stack Pierce and George Wallace) are around to pick up the bodies.

The film is antic but excessively violent. It's not enough to shoot somebody; the killer has to bend over and cut his throat and we get to watch the blood squirt like the cream from a crushed cannoli. The interplay between comedy and violence may be honest to the spirit of Chester Himes -- it may even be honest to the spirit of Harlem in the '50s -- but it's jarring on the screen.

And finally -- when is Hollywood going to make a movie that shows black people with normal lives -- jobs, marriages, churches, mortgages, buses to catch, payments to make? This one is full of the usual elements -- gangsters, sluts, bad behavior, greed and power trips -- that are regularly denounced by enlightened commentators. Isn't there a middle ground between the sick violence of "A Rage in Harlem" and the pieties of "The Cosby Show"?

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