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‘A Rage in Harlem’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 03, 1991


Bill Duke
Forest Whitaker;
Gregory Hines;
Danny Glover;
Zakes Mokae;
John Toles-Bay;
Robin Givens
Under 17 restricted

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In "A Rage in Harlem," a certain comic vitality makes itself known right away. We're in Natchez, Miss., 1956. White man John Seitz has lured a black gang to a rendezvous, ostensibly to buy their hoard of stolen gold.

But it's a trap. The cops surround the place. The angry gangsters tie Seitz to a chair. He assails them with racial epithets. His face is contorted with hatred. Leader Badja Dola edges towards Seitz, knife in hand. He comes in closer. Suddenly he becomes fascinated with the unsightly mole on Seitz's face.

"What the hell's that thing on your nose?" he asks him. "It's distracting."

Distractions like that make the movie. Luckily, in this shaggy dog farce, there's a lot of them.

In the shootout, Dola's moll Robin Givens makes off with the gold. Trying to lose the gang, she heads to Harlem where she finds Forest Whitaker -- a bumbling undertaker's assistant -- and a safe hideout. She's on the fly with a trunk of gold. He's on the shy, with a picture of Jesus (not to mention Mama) on the wall.

It's the beginning of a predictable affair between the big lug and the moll. Givens is wonderfully vampy. Whitaker's so theatrically bashful, he'd be thrown out of clown school. But while Whitaker and Givens plod through a mundane romance, the other actors run comic rings around them.

The gang retrieves Givens and the gold. Whitaker, unaware of her shady connections, thinks she's been kidnaped. He enlists estranged, black-sheep brother Gregory Hines to help him. Hines wants the gold. Whitaker needs the girl.

What's going to happen is clear almost from the start. What matters are the funny things on the way to the forum. "Harlem" is a comedy of retorts, attitude and emphasis. Later in the film, Whitaker is about to hop a train in hot pursuit of Givens. Hines offers Whitaker money -- a lot of money. But Whitaker's too romantically obsessed to care.

"I don't need this for what I'm going to do," he says.

"Jackson," Hines tells his brother with wide-eyed disbelief, "you need that."

Something about that poverty joke, particularly in a black context, gives the comment an extra ring.

In her debut, Givens is right on the money as the busty dame with a heart of gold. Dola is memorably menacing. There are also good turns from Danny Glover as a polished and sleazy villain, Zakes Mokae as a transvestite brothel owner and John Toles-Bey (who co-scripted with Whitaker) as Dola's sidekick. When the gang comes into Whitaker's room, they see the Jesus picture, as well as the portrait of Whitaker's stout, severe mother next to it.

"Who's that?" says Toles-Bey.

"That's Jesus," says Givens with surprise.

"I know who the {bleep} Jesus is," retorts Toles-Bey.

"That's his mama," says Givens, referring to the other picture.

Toles-Bey looks shocked. He had no idea Jesus had a black mother.

"That's His mama?"

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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