MysteryPeople Double Feature: RAGE IN HARLEM by Chester Himes

MysteryPeople Partners with Authors & Auteurs for Return to Normal: A 50s Film Noir Film Series

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

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For the past few years, MysteryPeople has highlighted some of our favorite noir cinema based on crime fiction, with discussions following each screening to discuss the book and film. This year, MysteryPeople’s Double Feature film series is partnering with the Author & Auteurs Book Club for a summer of films highlighting the injustices and rot beneath the glamorous veneer of 1950s America. We’re kicking it off with a screening of A Rage In Harlem, Chester Himes’ seminal 1957 crime novel adapted into director Bill Duke’s 1991 movie, this Sunday, June 4, at 2 PM. In some ways the relationship between book and film contradicts the usual film adaptation.

A Rage In Harlem is not only a rollicking, tight, fast moving crime novel, it is a densely packed look at life and culture of the neighborhood in the title. The story follows a somewhat innocent mortician, Jackson, who loses his money and woman, Imabelle, who could easily be part of the scam. To get her back, he enlists his hustler brother Goldie. Their search maneuvers through neighborhoods and cat houses, and past preachers, hotel bell boys, gamblers, and carousers, and connects the brothers to a trunk full of treasure some bad men from Mississippi, Harlem crime boss Easy Money, and hard ass cops Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson (who become the series leads in later Himes novels) are all after.

The film does its best to capture the book. Bill Dike worked with cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, production designer Steve Legler, and costume designer Nele Samples deliver a Harlem of bright, mostly primary colors. Forrest Whitaker and Gregory Hines play Jackson and Goldie with the broad style of the story, while making them human. Robin Givens goes an underrated turn as Imabelle, that keeps you guessing of her intentions. To capture the absurdity of Chester Himes’ work, several of the supporting characters are played by comic actors.

This is the rare occurrence where the film augments the story of the novel instead of condensing it. Himes’ tight plotting allowed for some explanation of the back story.  The film opens with an intense shootout where we learn about what happened with that trunk in Mississippi. The story is given more heart as we see how Jackson and Imabelle got together.

It is odd to discover that the book from 1957 is raunchier and more violent than a 1991 film. The adaptation proves to be a colorful look at the past, made from a novel that took a detailed look at Himes’ present. The social, political, and racial themes are less overt. The adaptation creates some disconnect, but it is still entertaining.

Double Feature Stats:

Adherence To Plot Of The Book: 4.4 out of 5

Adherence To Quality Of The Book: 3 out of 5

Further Reading: Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker, Fearless Jones by Walter Mosely, more Chester Himes

Further Viewing: Devil In A Blue Dress, Shaft, Hoodlum

Fun Facts: Roger Ebert viewed an early cut of the film that was muddled, giving it a thumbs down on At The Movies, but after seeing the minute-shorter release version gave it a recommend print review.

The book was first published in France with the title Queen Of Fools.

You can find copies of A Rage In Harlem on our shelves and via The Authors and Auteurs Book Club will meet on Sunday, June 4th, starting at 2 PM, to screen the film adaptation of Himes’ classic work.

Film screenings for the Authors and Auteurs Book Club occur on the first Sunday of each month and are free and open to the public. Film screenings will be followed by discussion of the book versus the film. 

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