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‘A Rage in Harlem’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 03, 1991


Bill Duke
Forest Whitaker;
Gregory Hines;
Danny Glover;
Zakes Mokae;
John Toles-Bay;
Robin Givens
language, violence and sexuality

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Savvy. Sulky. Sexy. Sultry. Only the S-words seem to apply when it comes to Robin Givens's film debut in "A Rage in Harlem." A show-stealing slink, Givens does for tight skirts what Whitney Houston did for the National Anthem. And it's not easy to steal a show as bodaciously entertaining and replete with talent as this one. But then leading men Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover and Gregory Hines are nothing if not gentlemen.

A rollicking adaptation of Chester Himes's novel, the movie brings something approximating real life into the bustling black community of the 1950s. It is a raunchy, funny and wickedly stylish tour on the A-train, a romantic action adventure that takes us inside Harlem the way "Moonstruck" took us inside Little Italy. Likewise it turns on an unlikely fairy tale romance, not Cinderella this time but the Frog Prince.

Whitaker is the one with the warts, psychic only, as Jackson, a shy, God-fearing mortician who keeps framed pictures of his mother and Jesus hanging above the bed in his humble rented room. A man who doesn't expect much from life, he wakes with a prayer on his lips: "Lord, thank you for letting me wake up in my right mind." Overweight, shortsighted and the owner of two left feet, he simply can't believe his luck when he meets Imabelle (Givens) at the Annual Undertakers' Ball.

Screamin' Jay Hawkins is pounding the ivories into a jubilantly raucous "I Put a Spell on You" when Imabelle decides to seduce Jackson. A moll on the lam, she needs a place to hide out with a trunk full of ill-gotten gold, and the gullible Jackson is easily enticed into offering her his bed for the night. Unfailingly polite and gentle, he spends the night watching over her from a chair, like an old-fashioned hero in a 1930s love story.

She pays him back in kindness the next morning. "I don't know how to do nothing," stammers the blubbery virgin host. "It don't matter. It don't matter at all," she says, shedding her hard shell. Now hopelessly in love with Imabelle, Jackson is called upon to rescue her from a former lover, Slim (Badja Djola). The possessive type, Slim and his gang kidnap Imabelle, and Jackson reluctantly seeks help from his estranged brother, Goldy (Gregory Hines).

Jackson still hasn't forgiven his brother for skipping their mother's funeral, so this convenient turn of events allows the two of them to work out their sibling rivalry. And suddenly they are sneaking around together like mismatched cops in a slapstick buddy comedy. At first Goldy says he's doing it for the gold, but Hines and Whitaker convince us that there's brotherly love behind every comic move.

Danny Glover and Zakes Mokae contribute two more fascinating characters to this lively lot. Glover is the unnerving crime boss who incites Slim when he licks his lips over Imabelle in the mobster's itchy presence. Mokae, a South African actor, is Big Kathy, a transvestite who runs the local bawdy house and is Goldy's dearest friend. "I thank the Lord for taking our mother to Heaven before she saw you running around with this female impersonator," scolds Jackson.

Bill Duke, often at the helm of such prestigious TV cop series as "Hill Street Blues," "Cagney & Lacey" and "Miami Vice," brings a strong sense of story to the flash and fury in this exciting big-screen bow. Skilled as a ringmaster in coordinating the disparate elements -- musical production numbers to violent confrontation to tender moments -- he never loses sight of the whole circus. Directing from the folkloric and witty screenplay by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford, Duke gets at the harmony of Harlem. "A Rage in Harlem" is sheer jubilation.

"A Rage in Harlem" is rated R for language, violence and sexuality.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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