Friday, May 26, 2017

A Rage On My Bookshelf, or The Reclamation of Chester Himes

How do books you love stack up to their film adaptations?

For me to come out of a bag on A RAGE IN HARLEM (1991 - Miramax Films) is to risk the ire of a generation of African-American filmgoers who prize the work as a marvel of hilarity. Back when movie audiences were bifurcated along racial lines (pre-GET OUT's paradigm shifting phenomena) the film stood as a considerable achievement in the ability of black storytellers to take a black author's property and bring it to the big screen, albeit with a white fella from within the system as their producer (the great Stephen Wooley, responsible for everything worth seeing from Neil Jordan among others.)

Except the necessity of creative invention produced a film that only slightly resembles the novel upon which it was based: FOR LOVE OF IMABELLE, authored by none other than the great Chester Himes, who wrote boldly and dangerously of the reality of black American life, consequently depicting the hypocrisy of the America who thinks of itself along racial and economic lines.

Himes was at his best when he was at his most caustic. In fact, this was what earned him his fame, and eventually the ire of the publishing establishment: he was just too damned good at putting the world on blast for its bullshit. Unfortunately, what was written as a fast-moving, intricate and searing crime novel, which revealed societal contradictions around every one of its twists and turns, became a frickin' laugh riot filled with cameos of every black actor of note that was either working at the time or hard-up for a role so they could keep their SAG card. Danny Glover, Zakes Moake, Badja Diola, Samm-Art Williams, Stack Pierce, Helen Martin, T.K. Carter. Hell, they lured George Wallace off the Vegas casino comedy circuit to actually deliver a performance that, along with Stack Pierce, makes you wish someone kept The Harlem Series adaptations going, if only for their portrayal of Coffin Ed and Gravedigger.

The basic plot is still there: Jackson, a hapless milquetoast, meets and immediately falls in love with the beautiful and deceitful Imabelle and is promptly conned out of a load of bread he pilfers from his undertaker boss. Her main thang Slim is the leader of a ruthless gang of black country bumpkins. Jackson's con-artist half-brother Goldy gets involved, and as he is an informant to none other than Harlem Detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, the crew comes to pay the price for runnin' game in the biggest of big cities.

Unfortunately, aside from some glossing over of elements of black-on-black crime, corrupt policing and black female empowerment (particularly well-crafted in the performance of the underrated Robin Givens as Imabelle,) the film distances itself from addiction in all its forms (gambling, sex, drugs, alcohol,) black female sexuality and sexual aggressiveness, and, most disappointingly, the multi-racial reality of Harlem debauchery in all its depraved sustenance. Of course, the Hollywood of the 80s and 90s wouldn't allow such aspects to make it onto the screen, what with Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING driving studio executives to risk management meetings. Still, FOR THE LOVE OF IMABELLE just as well could be filmed as an edgy thriller (maybe even a horror show,) yet it was framed for investors as a comedy geared toward African Americans. Not as the adaptation of a crime fiction classic that deserves to be held in the same esteem as any of the works of Chandler or Hammett.

Speaking with the BBC back in 2006, Stephen Wooley broke on the approach during filming, including an anecdote about Bill Duke that no one who has been in the room with the brilliant veteran would disbelieve:

...[A]bout halfway through we were looking at a scene, and I turned to Bill [Duke] and said 'You know [pause] that wasn't quite as funny as it was in the script. And I don't know why. And he said to me , 'We're not making no god-damn comedy.' I'd raised the entire money for this film on the base that it was a comedy. It was Chester Himes, it was supposed to be funny. And a shiver went down my spine...I hoped that Bill was joking. But I realized he thought we were making Porgy and Bess.

And there it is. To finally get Chester Himes to the big screen, they had to neuter the book and turn it into some sort of all-star comedy. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it "painless, occasionally funny" but with a "heedlessly incomprehensible plot…" No one who worships at the altar of Himes would ever associate his work with such disparagement, including the "occasionally funny" bit. Although it pulls laughs out of readers, Himes' work isn't comedic. Ain't really nothin' about it funny, same as how black life in America ain't funny, though we wring laughs from it as well.

A film so removed from the visceral thrust of its source material could only be created by writers and producers who are disconnected from the wealth of the author's work. I exempt Bill Duke, as he is regarded as an artist of compromising vision. Also, he's bigger than me and I have an even-money chance of running into him at some Diversity in Hollywood gathering or something.

If you don't relate it back to FOR LOVE OF IMABELLE (retitled as A RAGE IN HARLEM, to take advantage of post hoc awareness of Himes' genius) it holds up. It's a damned good film. Its laughs and tears are well earned. For years, I looked past its flaws, if for no other reason than I have to cape for black folk who succeed in the Sysisphean quest of getting a film to market. Back then, the achievement was just too remarkable not to hold it in that light.

Yet now we are in an age where, once again (and for about the one-hundredth time) Hollywood is realizing that great films made by African American creators aren't, by default, only for black audiences. Tragically, this is occurring at the same time the achievements of the great Chester Himes are lost on so many of my fellow crime fiction scribes, including those who owe him a debt. I have to accept that, no matter how noble this somewhat-masterpiece may be, it still leaves us a lot of work to do, if not a lot to be desired.

- dg


My debut novel, A NEGRO AND AN OFAY, is a work which is decidedly in conversation with Chester Himes, who led the way with crafting crime fiction that deals unguardedly and fearlessly with race and class in America. It is set in the same period and hopefully achieves for Chicago what Himes' depictions did for Harlem, New York. It's available from Down & Out Books. As always, I deeply appreciate your support.


Paul D. Marks said...

It's always hard to see a movie of a book we like and see it changed in radical ways. By their nature movies are different from books, but one can still be true to the spirit of the book and make it work as a movie. I think LA Confidential does this. But a lot of times Hollywood wants the cache of a certain book or writer but doesn't have the courage to put their vision on the screen. That's when you start to wonder why they bought the rights in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Seriously. I can't think of a movie that lived up to its book-parent. Maybe it's unnatural and better to enjoy one or the other. But beyond my rambling, I say wow. Love this post.