A RAGE IN HARLEM. 1991. Robin Givens, Gregory Hines, Forest Whitaker, Danny Glover. Based on the novel For Love of Imabelle by Chester Himes. Original music: Elmer Bernstein. Director: Bill Duke.

   Not too many movies are based on paperback originals, but this is one, and it’s a Gold Medal paperback original to boot. Unfortunately, it’s not a book I’ve ever read, so I can’t tell you whether Himes’ series characters, a pair of ruthless Harlem cops named Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, have as small a role in the novel as they do in the movie, but in the movie, if you weren’t listening for the names, you’d never even know they were in it.

   The main focus, not too surprisingly, is Robin Givens as Imabelle, a luscious gangster’s moll who flees Natchez, Mississippi, to Harlem with a trunk full of gold, circa 1956, with the gangster’s gang following close on her heels.


   Giving her shelter in his room overnight is a shy, pudgy undertaker’s assistant named Jackson (Forest Whitaker), and nature soon takes its course from there. Jackson’s half-brother Goldy, the black sheep of the family, flamboyantly played by Gregory Hines, is a Harlem-based grifter whose ears perk up when he senses there may be a fortune in gold in the neighborhood.

   A period piece, beautifully filmed. The cinematography may be even better than the plot, which itself is better than average. (Well, even if they changed things around from the way they appeared in the book, as is probably the case, consider the source.)

   There’s enough action – cars and guns – to satisfy the portion of the crowd for whom the plot is hardly essential, and an absolute highlight, besides watching Jackson and Imabelle and nature taking its course, is a knock-out performance at the Undertakers’ Ball of “I Put a Spell on You” by none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (played to perfection by himself). Absolutely decadent.

— September 2004