Everyone in the comic action movie A Rage in Harlem is slightly larger and loonier than life. There's the quiet, naive, roly-poly hero, Jackson (Forest Whitaker), a Jesus haunted mortician's accountant who discovers the pleasures of the flesh in the eye-popping person of Imabelle (Robin Givens), a con woman who has absconded with a cache of stolen gold. There's Jackson's half-brother Goldy (Gregory Hines), a seam artist fond of passing himself off as a priest. There's crime boss Easy Money (Danny Glover), whose first loyalty is to his adored Pomeranian, and Big Kathy, the madam of a bustling bordello, who turns out to be a man in drag (Zakes Mokae). Readers of Chester Himes novels will recognize Coffin Ed (Stack Pierce) and Grave Digger (George Wallace), his cop heroes, though they are only background figures in this adaptation by John Toles-Bey and Bobby Crawford.
The volatile mixture of violence and mordant comedy that is Himes's specialty gets somewhat homogenized in Bill Duke's movie, set in the faraway land of 1956 Harlem. Duke, who comes from a long television career, isn't the most fluid of film directors yet, but he keeps this tangled tale of lust and larceny bouncing with a disreputable, funloving B-movie energy that's hard to resist. Givens turns in a deliciously lascivious comic performance, nicely balanced by Whitaker's oafish mama's boy and Badja Djola's threatening power as her bad boyfriend. Don't let the angry title deceive you-this movie's a cakewalk.