Sunday, February 22, 2009

Himes on Harlem: Pop Goes The Weasel

By Odienator (click here for all posts)

(Odienator note: I'm back from Ireland and trying to catch up. There will be double posts the next few days.)

After the success of Cotton Comes to Harlem, Warner Bros. brought Godfrey Cambridge and Raymond St. Jacques back to the screen in a sequel called Come Back, Charleston Blue. Directed by Mark Warren and based on The Heat's On, the Chester Himes book that followed Cotton, Blue is more a curiosity piece than required viewing. Boasting a score by Donny Hathaway and its place as the second detective movie sequel to feature Black characters, the PG rated Blue is far too tame for its source material. It's not a bad movie, and it has some funny moments, but it would have benefited from an R-rating and the return of Ossie Davis as director.

Fast-forward 19 years to A Rage In Harlem, which shares numerous similarities with its 1970 predecessor. Harlem is based on a Chester Himes book and directed by a Black actor turned director, Bill Duke. Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones are back, with the latter again played by a sarcastic comedian. There are schemes involving religion and money, a fine woman or two, and language and nudity that earn it the same rating Cotton Comes To Harlem got. Both were billed and advertised as comedies, but both have an action-oriented side.

Cotton Comes To Harlem doesn't shy away from Himes' violent world of hustlers, marks and damsels, but A Rage in Harlem veers closer to its graphic nature. It's less an adaptation of the first Coffin Ed and Gravedigger novel, For Love of Imabelle, than an evocation of the moods and ideas found in Himes' books. Rage uses the novel's plot as a jumping off point, spinning a neo-noir fairy tale. There's a big trunk of gold, a character named Goldy, a crime lord who loves an animal more than a man should, and recited nursery rhymes. There's also a love story, complete with the rescue of the damsel in distress by a man of virtue.

All of this is presented with a nod toward the absurd, of which Himes would have approved. The full text of the quote I cited in my Cotton post is:

"And I thought I was writing realism. It never occurred to me that I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks one cannot tell the difference."

An example of this absurdity: The man of virtue is a city boy named Jackson (Forrest Whitaker). He bucks the stereotype of the urbanite being smarter and more dangerous than the country folks he encounters. He's clueless about life, but as an undertaker's assistant, he knows a lot about death. Jackson is so overJesused, he has a picture of de Lawd over his bed, right next to a picture whose identity is a hilarious running joke in the film.

People will see this picture. The dialogue goes like this:
Person 1: Who's That up there?
Person 2: That's Jesus!

Person 1: I know who Jesus is! I mean who's the other dude.

Person 2: That's his Mama.
Person 1: (incredulously) That's Jesus' Mama?!
Person 2: No! That's Jackson's Mama.

Person 1: (looking again) DAMMMMMMN!!!

Jackson doesn't realize the damsel in distress he intends on rescuing is actually part of the gang from which he wishes to extricate her. For a virtuous man who is always quoting Scripture and looking at sinners with scorn, his reason for rescuing his gal is purely sexual. Perhaps he wants his virtue back from the woman who took it. Jackson may be the most pussy-whipped character in movie history, and he's the hero of A Rage in Harlem.

Our damsel in distress is actually a femme fatale, not that the virginal Jackson would know the difference when he meets her. Her name is Imabelle (Robin Givens), and she's sexy, vampy and curvy in ways Jackson's Jesus picture would disapprove of, even if Jesus looks like All That Jazz's Joe Gideon.

It's Showtime Folks!

Imabelle is a hooker with a trunk full of gold who, during the film's opening gun fight-slash-mole mutilation sequence, runs away from a dangerous Bama named Slim (Badja Djola). The trunk belongs to Slim, whose shootout results from a trade deal gone wrong. Trapped in Harlem with no liquid funds and no place to hide, she seeks a mark with whom she can crash while she contemplates her next move. She winds up at the Undertaker's Ball, the kind of social event Jackson finds distasteful because of its potential for hook-ups. Of course, Jackson is there this time, but he needs a little coaxing to get trapped in Imabelle's spider web-slash-coochie.

Jackson takes Imabelle home, but not for her intended purpose. When Imabelle wakes up, clothed, after falling asleep in his bed, she finds that her sexy red dress has been covered with a blanket. "You covered me up," she says incredulously. "Most men would have uncovered me." Never once does Imabelle think that Jackson might be gay, or if she does, she's convinced she can at least get him to try the other side of the menu.

Imabelle realizes that she has to uncover herself for this guy to get the picture. When he does, the floor gets the picture too; Jackson removes Jesus and Mama, placing them next to his bed. "I don't know anything," he shyly tells her. "It don't matter, Jackson," says Imabelle. Their coupling is set to the most perfect 2 minutes and 43 seconds ever pressed into vinyl, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames' Please, Please, Please. As James begs on the soundtrack so convincingly that only the most heartless woman would leave, director Duke intercuts Jackson's ecstasy with pictures of Jesus and Mom; it's hardly a subtle representation of a soul's carnal corruption. Afterward, Imabelle looks at Jackson, her face revealing she knows she has her mark hooked. "Will you marry me?" he asks. He's not kidding.

Meanwhile, Slim and his posse find their way to Harlem to make a deal with a crime lord named Easy Money (Danny Glover). Easy Money carries a lap dog wherever he goes, decades before Paris Hilton and Mickey Rourke made it fashionable. Glover juggles the juxtaposition of this tough guy with his fluffy dog, convincing us that his love for the dog could be (and is) his undoing at the hands of Slim. The poor thing suffers the most ruthless piece of slapstick comedy A Rage in Harlem has to offer, but it will be avenged before the credits roll.

When the jealous Slim finds out Imabelle is shacking up with a man as gullible as Jackson, he's at first angry, but then he can't resist running an easy con to get all Jackson's life savings. Imabelle protests--the poor guy's innocence and doggish devotion has softened her heart—but it's either his money or his life. Slim's henchman (Rage's screenwriter, John Toles-Bey) recites the nursery rhyme that precedes much of Rage's carnage, Pop Goes The Weasel. It's Mother Goose's answer to Pulp Fiction's Ezekiel 25:17.

The scam Jackson gets roped into is even more ridiculous than cashing a check from Nigeria. It involves cooking your money in an oven. Slim breaks in, pretending to be a cop cracking down on this particular type of voodoo. Jackson is scammed, his apartment damaged, and his heart broken when he discovers Imabelle is gone when he returns home after giving Slim all his money as a bribe. "Please don't let her be gone," Jackson asks de Lawd, and you almost feel badly for laughing at Whitaker's delivery. The neighborhood Muslim, Claude X (Willard Pugh, looking very Nation of Islam in his tie and glasses), tells Jackson to seek out his step-brother to help him get his woman back.

Jackson's step-brother is named Sherman, though he prefers Goldy. Goldy (Gregory Hines) is a gold-toothed horndog who scams the kids in Harlem by selling them $5 tickets he says will get their dying loved ones into Heaven. He hasn't spoken to Jackson in years, which suits the latter fine until he needs help getting his groove back. Goldy isn't interested in helping Jackson who, despite ignoring several religious tenets in the last few paragraphs, still acts pious when he encounters Goldy dressed like a priest. Goldy shoos his bro away, until he hears about the trunk of gold Imabelle has in her possession. "You get the girl, I get the gold," he tells Jackson, who agrees to take love over money.

Goldy seems less dangerous than most of Harlem, but Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones (Stack Pierce and George Wallace) are obsessed with shooting him. When Ed and Digger discover that Goldy is wrapped up in the Slim caper, they can't resist this two-for-one sale. Jackson's landlord (Helen Martin) describes the woman he has been "fornicating with," and the men who took her. Martin would remember Imabelle, too. When Jackson brings her home, Martin looks at her and complains "if Jesus was on Earth today, He'd climb back up on the cross and start over!" To the detectives, she mentions the heavy trunk the men were hurrying out of the building. "That may be that trunk of gold," says Digger. "Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't," says Martin, "but somebody's gonna pay $179 for my busted stove!"

The love of a good woman, or should I say the too-damn-good punany of a no-damn-good woman, empowers Jackson. He's still way too naïve for Goldy's taste, for he thinks Imabelle has been kidnapped. His attempts to save her lead Jackson to leap across rooftops, dodge bullets, and get involved with some of Harlem's lowest criminals. He is so delusional that, at one point, he challenges Slim to a fistfight for Imabelle's hand.

The film treads an uneasy line between Jackson's obliviousness and the dangerous nature of those with whom he interacts. To assist in the gold's retrieval, Goldy enlists his only friend, Big Kathy. Big Kathy is the tall, blonde madam of a Harlem brothel, but that ain't no lady, that's Zakes Mokae in drag. Jackson is horrified, and even more terrified after Big Kathy cleans his clock with one punch. Big Kathy is an interesting character, embodied by Mokae without once winking at the audience, and I wish he'd had more screen time. In his one non-drag scene, Mokae provides the film's consequences of the single-minded actions of both Jackson and Goldy, as well as Himes' penchant for broad comedy giving way to brutality. "I recognize that voice!" says an astonished Toles-Bey before slitting Big Kathy's throat while Goldy wastes time chasing his brother. "When I last saw you, you was dressed as a woman! You dat bitch that runs the whorehouse!" It's the film's most brutal sequence, infused with the notion that there is no way on earth anyone could have mistaken Zakes Mokae for a woman.

Redemption isn't high on Himes' priority list, but A Rage In Harlem seeks it in numerous characters. Givens, in her film debut, is convincing both as a heartless seductress and a woman confused about the mark she discovers she has feelings for; he may be the first man in her life to have treated her well. Late in the film, she tells him she doesn't deserve him, and she's right, but the film puts a gun in her hand and the audience on her side. Goldy's loss of his only true friend doesn't cure him of his greed, but it does allow the return of brotherly feelings toward Jackson. Jackson is still naïve, but his passion for Imabelle, regardless of its naivety, makes him man up.

Rage and Cotton are time capsules of their respective eras. Davis' film is looser, less moody and more comedic. It exists not as a period piece because its release was only 4 years after the novel was written. To look at it is to look at 1970. Rage is a period piece, heightened by the director's noirish cin-tog, the cars and the costumes. To look at it is to look at the 1940's filtered through the stylishly violent pictures of the late 80's and early 90's. The music in both films support this theory; Cotton has Galt MacDermott writing music for 1970, and Rage has the ever-reliable Elmer Bernstein offering a jazzy throwback that sounds like 1948 in something that feels like 1991. Both films succeed in their intent, and would make a fine double feature.

That oven scam involves putting money in a cylinder and then baking it until more money "appears." This is how President Obama is going to fix the economy, by the way.

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