Givens KOs Her Image : Actress Beats 250 Others for 'Rage in Harlem' Role

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When director Bill Duke was looking for an actress to play opposite Forest Whitaker, Gregory Hines, Zakes Mokae and Danny Glover in his new film, "A Rage in Harlem," he talked to more than 250 actresses. The role was Imabelle, a sexy young woman from 1950s Mississippi who steals a trunkload of gold and trucks it to Harlem to fence.

One of the contenders for the role was Robin Givens. The actress wasn't just competing with the other actresses. She was also competing with her public image as a manipulative woman who married heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, endured a tumultuous, headline-filled one-year marriage, and then divorced him. Although exact figures weren't made public, Givens is believed to have collected a $2-million settlement.

"There was a great deal of concern whether the negative publicity would overshadow the stars in the film, her performance, everything, no doubt about it," Duke says. "At one time, on the front of a tabloid she was portrayed as the 'most hated woman in America.' "

In her screen test, Duke paired Givens with actor Badja Djola, who plays the film's villain. "We had her do two of the most difficult scenes with Badja. She brought the heat to the role we wanted and was the Imabelle we were looking for.

"In the final analysis," Duke says, "I believed she should not get the role because she was Robin Givens, nor should she be denied the role because she was Robin Givens. Robin Givens got this role because she worked her behind off for it."

In spite of the publicity surrounding her marriage to Tyson (which she dismisses as "just business, it's what sells"), Givens acknowledges that her controversial image was a career hurdle. "The fact of the matter is that on a good day, if I'm feeling kind of strong and healthy and probably, because I have this film behind me, I can admit to myself that it did hurt. On a bad day in the midst of everything, if you'd asked me 'Is this going to help or hurt?' I'd say, 'Oh no, everything will be OK.' "

Today, she says, "I think I've grown up a lot. First of all, I think my life right now is very different than my life then. I've tried to put the garbage behind me, and I think that I've done that. I was a girl, like many other people, trying to survive in my own right. I was going through something personal in a life and a marriage and dealing with things I wasn't prepared for. I think I handled the situation the best I possibly could under the circumstances."

Forest Whitaker, who plays a wide-eyed innocent enraptured by Imabelle, said he shared Duke's initial worry. "I was concerned only that the public would be taken out of the film, thinking about her history and pay no attention to the movie." But he now believes "her casting was a good decision. I would say her relationship between her and Badja will be what the audience is focusing on . . . I think her work merits that."

Duke, an actor (he was the villain in "Predator") and a director of more than 130 television shows including "Miami Vice" and "Hill Street Blues" and dozens of Off-Broadway plays, says "The thing about Robin Givens as an actress is that she doesn't back away from anything. When we asked her to do difficult things, she tried 1,000%." He added that he believes Givens has a chance of becoming the first black sex siren since Dorothy Dandridge.

Givens was initially nervous about carrying such a pivotal role in the $11-million production. "She's a woman privy to some conversations among men which women aren't usually privy to," Givens says of her character, a calculating--but engaging--charmer.

"She tells jokes like them," Givens adds, "she can swear as well as they can and she drinks beer out of bottles like them," she says. "They have the strength, you know, but I think she uses her sensuality, her sexuality, as the one weapon that she has that they don't have. That's what I tried to give her. It would have been very easy to go the other way, just wear the dress and sashay."

After making "Rage in Harlem" a year ago, Givens returned to her role of Darlene in ABC's "Head of the Class" for what turned out to be the show's final season. The sitcom was invaluable as a confidence-building experience for being funny, she believes. "We were doing a comedy," she explains, "trying to make people laugh, and trying to make people laugh means taking chances. Well, certain chances I didn't want to take, I was scared. But those people made me feel safe in messing up. So my fourth and fifth season I was like a fool on that show," she chortles.

Givens has said that, shortly after leaving Harvard pre-med graduate courses (which she had entered with the plan of becoming a surgeon) for Hollywood, that her ambition focused on becoming the first black woman to write, direct and act in a major film.

She's accomplished one-third of that ambition, in spite of few opportunities for black women in the film industry, and, according to Givens, the remaining credits may soon come through various projects her production company, Never Blue, is negotiating. But opportunities for black actresses are scarce.

"The NAACP (Image Awards) recently cancelled their 'best (black) actress" nomination because they had nobody to nominate," she says angrily. "I think it's pitiful that there's Winona Ryder and Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, I couldn't possibly name them all, and not one black star in 1991!" She added that if "A Rage in Harlem," which opens Friday, "makes a lot of money, it could open the doors to a lot of black actors." If not, "we're back to square one.

"Let me say this about my being strong-willed. I think people don't know me. This movie has given me the opportunity to be honest about certain things, about my life," Givens says. "When things seem a little bit OK then you can be honest about when time wasn't OK.

"I don't think the most talented actress gets a (particular) role all the time in this business," she adds. "When Bill Duke called me and said that I had gotten this role, I kind of said 'There's no reason for me to have gotten this.' Yes, I worked hard. I think I'm pretty good. I grew up Catholic, and I kind of felt like God or somebody said 'Don't think I wasn't watching. . . .' "

So, one inevitably wonders, who, really, is Robin Givens? The sincere, committed, sensitive, emotional perfectionist she says she is, or someone "cool, calculating and conniving" as People magazine quoted a friend from her days as a Sarah Lawrence undergrad.

"That's a tough one," she says. "Well, I'm definitely here and I'm an actress, and I'm a 26-year-old still trying to figure out life a little bit. I think I've kind of developed guts--I didn't have that before. I'm a person that cares about things passionately, I'm a person that has extreme principles and I will fight to make things happen. Things like making people aware that black people are people."

During the Tyson days, much was written about her mother, Ruth Roper, and Roper's influence on her life and marriage. When asked if she and her mother are still as intimate, she claims they are "incredibly close" and, as two perfectly matched tears well out of her eyes and fall down her cheeks, she adds: "I think there is so much pain you don't know. . . . It's hard to talk and I don't know why I'm talking so much about it." (Roper could not be reached for comment.)

Ten minutes later, tears cleaned up, makeup fixed, Robin Givens is posing for a photographer. She snaps orders to a fleet of attendants and settles into a languid pose. "This is a family newspaper," the photographer shouts. Givens looks down at her chest, hitches up her low decolletage and looks up, squarely at the camera, a smile of innocence suffusing her face.

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