From its tense but amusing opening scene, in which a vicious black gangster has his henchman cut a huge mole off the nose of a double-crossing racist crime lord, director Bill Duke's A Rage in Harlem forgoes good taste in the name of exuberant entertainment. Forest Whitaker, who had worked primarily in more dramatic roles at the time, gives a genuinely hilarious performance as Jackson, the shy, naïve mortuary worker. Robin Givens vamps impressively as the pragmatic Imabelle, who flees Natchez and her boyfriend, Slim (the impressively menacing Badja Djola), with a trunk full of stolen gold. Danny Glover is also impressive as the soft-spoken but ruthless kingpin Easy Money. Duke elicits pitch-perfect performances from his cast. Jackson, Imabelle, and the rest of the characters teeter on the brink of cartoonishness, but these actors make them believable enough to lend their story surprising emotional weight. Author Chester Himes' work had previously been brought to the screen in Ossie Davis' Cotton Comes to Harlem, an enjoyable film from the blaxploitation era. Eddie Murphy had mined similar territory in his Harlem Nights, a creative and financial failure. But Duke's noteworthy feature debut, which competed for the Palme d'Or at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, succeeds at capturing the irreverent tone of Himes' novel, and creates a memorable vision of Harlem in the 1950s.
by Josh Ralske review