Director Bill Duke has brought a stylish sheen to A Rage in Harlem, but his mix of comedy and violence in the Chester Himes period crime tale is dubious. Many will be turned off by the excessive bloodshed, but the fine cast keeps the pic watchable.
Though not promoted as such, Rage is a followup to the Himes film adaptations Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970) and Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972). Here the novelist’s cynical police detective protagonists Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones are relegated to secondary parts as the criminals take centerstage.
The raffish humor that made Cotton Comes to Harlem so delightful is only fitfully present. Co-producer Forest Whitaker, as an innocent mortuary accountant sucked into a plot involving stolen gold transported to 1956 Harlem from Mississippi, provides amiable but overdone antics in the lead role.
Pudgy mama’s boy Whitaker keeps large pictures of Jesus and his stolid mother framed over his bed, occasioning jokes that become progressively less funny. And when he falls for Southern siren Robin Givens, he falls predictably hard. Givens holds the screen with assurance, though she works a bit too hard at the coy and sultry bits.