Mississippi, 1954: sultry Imabelle (Robin Givens) flees a shootout between cops and criminals led by her murderous boyfriend, Slim (Badja Dola), bringing a box of stolen gold to Harlem, New York. Imabelle’s initial plan to sell the gold on to local crime boss Easy Money (Danny Glover) goes awry when he gets arrested, leaving her penniless and homeless till she works her charms on a pious patsy named Jackson (Forest Whitaker). Suitably smitten, Jackson shelters Imabelle and even proposes marriage, but when her criminal cohorts arrive on the scene she reluctantly helps sucker him into stealing his boss’ money. When Imabelle disappears, a still lovelorn Jackson resolves to track her down enlisting the aid of his estranged stepbrother Goldie (Gregory Hines), a resourceful small time crook who is keen to get his hands on that gold.
Co-produced by Miramax and the innovative, though soon to be defunct British outfit Palace Pictures, A Rage in Harlem was another film adapted from the humorous crime novels of author Chester Himes, in this instance “For the Love of Imabelle.” Himes’ reoccurring black detective heroes, the splendidly-named Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones whose adventures had previously reached the screen with Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) courtesy of actor-director Ossie Davis and its sequel Come Back Charleston Blue (1972), are here relegated to supporting roles played with aplomb by Stack Pierce and George Wallace. Which proves part of the problem. For while most of the screen time involves Jackson’s frantic romantic pursuit of the mercenary, though conflicted Imabelle, the more interesting aspects of the plot lie elsewhere with other characters.
The film brought brief stardom to Robin Givens before she became better known for taking Mike Tyson to the cleaners in their divorce settlement. But while Givens certainly looks the part of a scarlet harlot, she strains to exude the kind of combustible combination of sensuality with moral ambiguity that mark a truly memorable screen femme fatale. Equally, Forest Whitaker’s mannered performance renders Jackson’s bumbling self-righteousness somewhat tiresome. The film strikes several awkward notes, including of several grisly scenes and instances of gallows humour foreshadowing the kind of black comic thriller for which Quentin Tarantino would be renowned yet squanders the opportunities offered by Himes’ vivid stories. According to co-producer Stephen Woolley, despite the comical nature of the source material, actor-director Bill Duke had no intention of making a comedy, preferring instead to craft a vaguely tragicomic romance.
Best known for his role in Predator (1987), Duke had (and still has) a prolific career directing for television but returned sporadically to the big screen with stylish crime thriller Deep Cover (1992) and the overly glossy gangster biopic Hoodlum (1997). Working from a screenplay co-written by Bobby Crawford and actor John Toles-Bey, who plays villainous sidekick Jodie, Duke’s chaotic direction and stilted pacing fumble Himes’ complex plot. This grinds along when it should be a lot more punchy. Nevertheless, the starry African-American ensemble latch onto their vividly eccentric roles with relish, with Gregory Hines a charismatic presence as the smoothly amoral Goldie, Zakes Mokae as transvestite brothel madam-cum-tough guy Cathy, Badja Dola bringing real menace to his hulking antagonist (“Pop go the weasel!”) and Danny Glover suitably reptilian as a canine-loving crime boss.
Although ostensibly a crime thriller, there is a celebratory feel to the film counterbalancing the gritty milieu with an emphasis on the more positive aspects of urban African-American culture: lively patter, vivid characters and of course music including a spirited cameo from Screamin' Jay Hawkins performing (what else?) “I Put a Spell on You.” Music by the great Elmer Bernstein although the film fades out on an anachronistic R&B dance number performed by Darryl Pandy.