Bill Duke adapted A Rage in Harlem, a caper comedy set in 1956, from Chester Himes’ crime novel. Wonderful as the book is, it failed to make it to the bigscreen earlier, due to Hollywood’s lack of conviction in the commercial viability of an all-black story.
Holding that a black director was needed to maintain the book’s integrity, producer Kerry Boyle chose Duke because he was older than other candidates and the material called for maturity. Duke had made his debut with The Killing Floor (1984), which played at the Sundance Film Fest, about a man who risked his life to unionize a meat-packing plant.
Since John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford’s screenplay is thin, the characters are revealed entirely by the actors who play them.
The movie stars Robin Givens as a smooth operator from Mississippi, a sexy hustler with a trunkful of gold, pursued by a naive Bible-thumper (Forest Whitaker), his street-smart brother, and other thugs.
A Rage in Harlem was the first project featuring a black glamorous woman since Diana Ross’s ill-fated Mahogany. Like the late Dorothy Dandridge, Givens has both sex appeal and comic skills.
Though the most entertaining moments are incidental to the central plot, Duke compensates for this shortcoming with an affectionate portrait of Harlem’s vibrant street life, hustling and bustling with con artists.
Overall, the film is too earnest, especially when compared to such features as Cotton Comes to Harlem.