1991's 'A Rage in Harlem' and other films at the Black Harvest Film Fest

'A Rage in Harlem'

A scene from "A Rage in Harlem." (Courtesy Gene Siskel Film Center / August 13, 2014)

Hitting its 20th anniversary milestone this year, the Black Harvest Film Festival runs through the month of August at the Gene Siskel Film Center, spotlighting black cinema. The fest hasn't always been especially discerning about quality. I'm not sure that does anybody any favors. Quantity seems to be its primary goal, and my top pick of the remaining fest is a screening of "A Rage in Harlem," the 1991 heist comedy starring Robin Givens and Forest Whitaker. More on the film below.

"That Daughter's Crazy"

8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (with a post-screening Q&A with Rain Pryor and the film's producers)

Even when she's recalling an alarming memory from her childhood, Rain Pryor finds a sardonic way to shape it. She was just 12 when her father, the comedian Richard Pryor, set himself on fire after a night of drinking and freebasing cocaine. Distraught, the family gathered at the hospital. "And as I was sitting there waiting, the doctor came out and said, 'Mrs. Pryor?' and eight women stood up."

Rain was born from her father's second marriage (there would be several more, as referenced above), and as a performer herself, she has the highest profile of his children. "That Daughter's Crazy" is, to an extent, the story of her life, with the film's title riffing on her father's Grammy-winning 1974 comedy album "That N-----'s Crazy". Smart, sensitive and funny, she has a knockout singing voice — and all of it is on display in scenes filmed during a performance of her one-woman show in New York.

But the doc itself, from director Elzbieta Szoka, has a strange sort of patina to it, as if it were made as a piece of promotional material. Szoka's curiosity is limited to a single talking-head interview with her subject, peppered with brief observations from Rain's mother and grandmother. No one from her father's side of the family appears, nor do any of her siblings. Nor does anyone who knew her during her childhood in Beverly Hills, a period she describes as a series of surreal highs and lows, growing up in the '70s the bi-racial child of a black father and Jewish mother.

Szoka declines to dig up more than a smattering of old photos; old snapshots are a documentary trope but a reliable one for a reason. Context is everything, and it's not so much that Rain is an unreliable narrator but that the film is missing any kind of outside perspective. Visually, the camera rarely strays anywhere beyond the inside of the theater where Rain performs and a few glimpses on her on the beach with child. It all feels so contained. Too contained.

As a performer, Rain is perhaps most dazzling when imitating her father. The shadow cast by a celebrity parent is a long one, and it's not clear how exactly she feels about this skill she possess. But there's so much joy in it! I forgot how much I miss Richard Pryor's piercing outlook, his jangled rhythms and delivery. For a brief moment, she is able to bring that energy back to life.

"Grand Gesture"

6:15 p.m. Aug. 22 & 8:15 p.m. Aug. 23

I wanted to like this film. I really did. The main titles alone — animated with sharp, angular Midcentury graphics — speak to a filmmaker (Dana Verde) with a sense of style.

"This is a guerrilla film made on a production budget of $10,000 USD and shot in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas," a title card announces at the outset. That figure isn't unusual for microbudget indies, but I've never seen film declare its budget and under-the-radar methods before it even begins. Transparency has its place, but it can also come across as a pre-emptive justification for the film's flaws.

A young woman flies to Vegas for a bachelorette party before her impending marriage when an ex-boyfriend shows up at her swanky hotel suite and tries to win her back. It's a clever set-up for a director on a budget: Book a hotel room and contain the bulk of the action therein. That's the extent of my admiration for this romantic comedy, alas. The writing is stilted, the performances mannered. The film just isn't at the level it needs to be; the terrible sound mixing is a major issue — and it is always the biggest giveaway that a filmmaker hasn't yet figured out a creative work-around when shooting with limited funds.

"A Rage in Harlem"

5:15 p.m. Aug. 24 (with a post-screening Q&A via Skype with director Bill Duke)

I hadn't seen this 1991 heist comedy until last week, and although it is not a lost masterwork, the film has its charms (notably a terrific score and deep bench of acting talent). It's one of those movies that may not fully hang together, but it works in select moments.

Not to be confused with the disposable 1989 Eddie Murphy vanity project "Harlem Nights," the movie is adapted from the Chester Himes crime novel of the same name. Its pulpy 1950s setting straddles the line between comedy and hard-boiled — though not always successfully. Tonally, there's something a little confused about the film. Producer Stephen Woolley described tensions behind the camera a few years ago in an interview for BBC Radio:

"About halfway through we (he and director Bill Duke) were looking at a scene, and I turned to Bill and said 'You know, 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 g--damn comedy.' I'd raised the entire money for this film on the basis that it was a comedy. It was Chester Himes, it was supposed to be funny. And a shiver went down my spine and I hoped that Bill was joking. But I realized he thought we were making 'Porgy and Bess' and from there on in, I had to be on that film, on that set all the time."

Robin Givens plays a gangster's moll who escapes to New York, where she tries to offload a trunkful of stolen gold ore. Hoping to lay low, she shacks up with a dweeby innocent played by Forest Whitaker, an undertaker whose knucklehead colleagues include Wendell Pierce ("The Wire," "Treme") and T.K. Carter (an actor with an extensive TV resume as well, but who I always remember as Goldie Hawn's driver in 1980's "Seems Like Old Times").

Things get sticky when Givens' old gang from Mississippi track her down (one of the henchmen is played by Chicagoan John Toles-Bey, who also wrote the screenplay). Gregory Hines plays Whitaker's brother, a con artist with no patience for squares who eventually comes through when the stakes require it.

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