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Harlem Nights: Eddie Murphy and the Original Gangsters of Black Comedy

Gabi Tartakovsky

After a decade of uninterrupted success, Eddie Murphy ushered out the 1980s with an ambitious but shaky vanity project. Here is how the director, producer, writer and star of Harlem Nights bit off more than he could reasonably chew.

Harlem Nights

Director: Eddie Murphy
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Danny Aiello, Michael Lerner, Della Reese ,Stan Shaw ,Jasmine Guy, Berlinda Tolbert, Vic Polizos, Lela Rochon, David Marciano, Arsenio Hall
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
US Release Date: 1989-11-17

Eddie Murphy is considered today as an archetypical comedian of the 1980s. He was best loved in action stables, such as 48 Hours (1982) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), which fully explored the potential of teaming up Murphy’s street-wise menace with fools who try their best to go by the book. As a young blockbuster attraction, Murphy made his four-year tenure on Saturday Night Live seem like a mere footnote, while other past cast members still struggled to tear off its tag and gain cinematic glory. But his fame wasn’t always unchallenged and in fact, it was built on shakier grounds than often noted.

By the end of the 1980s, Murphy’s commercial success was so great and consistent that an ongoing debate emerged about its implications. The most famous critique was voiced by director Spike Lee, who expressed discomfort at Murphy’s seeming reluctance to use his status to set an example of black entrepreneurship. Lee remarked that the Eddie Murphy Productions company wasn’t completely owned by its namesake and wondered why Murphy never challenged the big studios’ hiring policy, telling Playboy in July 1991: “Eddie built Paramount. He built their house. He can bring some black people if he wants to.”

Comments on the star’s indifference to the social consequences of his career choices were being made even back in 1987. Shortly after Murphy struck gold again that year with Beverly Hills Cop 2, Robert Townsend presented Hollywood Shuffle, the adventures of an aspiring black actor, forced to meet with the film industry’s new comedy standard. One memorable scene included a casting agency packed with other struggling black colleagues working on their Eddie Murphy impersonation, focusing on his trademark laugh. All of them knew very well they would not pass the audition without delivering a required good “Murphy-esque” performance. Townsend mocked Hollywood’s cocky producers yet still suggested Murphy’s conscience should have guided him better. Perhaps it is no coincidence that later Murphy picked Townsend to direct him in his second standup film, Raw (1987).

In 1989, Murphy generated an additional larger power display, which also signaled his own unrest in coping with the black community and its legacy, despite achieving a peak in popularity. He decided to make his directorial début in Harlem Nights, as well as writing and producing it, while also securing the lead role. Murphy played the boastful Quick, who helps his mentor Sugar Ray manage a vibrant nightclub. Business couldn’t have been better until an intimidating rival offers an unfavorable partnership deal that can’t be refused.

Harlem Nights was a period piece, taking place in 1938, another first in Murphy’s filmography. It was a time when the neighborhood was already predominantly black and lost its overall appeal following fading interest in the “Harlem Renaissance”, a movement that forged new identities and sparked a rich artistic life within its borders. A deeper sense of history was also brought into the film by having standup icon Richard Pryor co-star as Sugar Ray. During the late 1960s, Pryor broke free from delivering customary dry one-liners to tackle race relations and vividly mimic his childhood landscape of junkies and grossly protective fathers. Casting him as a patron figure of Quick suited the public opinion that Pryor was the exact trailblazer who made it possible for Murphy to enjoy the opportunities and success he had.

The prospect of Murphy and Pryor sharing a bill was even more exciting due to the latter’s notoriously odd film career. It was impossible to predict what projects Pryor will attach himself to. His films ranged from high profile productions like Superman 3 (1983), to poor goofball comedies like Moving (1988) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), along with his share of the blaxploitation experience, as with The Mack (1973) and Car Wash (1976). Pryor’s big screen persona was often hysterical and nervous rather than the edgy and alert character of his standup routine. Throughout all this, he managed to have but a few dramatic roles, in which he provided a solid performance, most notably as the kind hearted Piano Man in the 1972’s Billy Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues and as Zeke Brown, a car plant worker taking on his own union in 1978’s Blue Collar. For years, landing emotionally charged roles were almost accidental on his behalf until he made an all-out effort in 1986 as director, writer and star of the contemplative personal account, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.

Harlem Nights marked Pryor’s return to another rare subdued mannerism. Speaking in a hush tone and looking genuinely distressed about being run out of town, it seemed as if Sugar Ray was giving up without a fight. He often tries to help Quick understand their humble place in the world of after-hours entertainment. Pryor's toning down the Sugar Ray character wasn’t scripted as such, and Pryor believed his performance was was the result of being bothered with a recent Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, which he kept to himself at the time. But it also reflected an unexpected rift between Murphy and Pryor. In his autobiography, Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (1997), he confessed to have: “... never connected with Eddie. People talked about how my work had influenced Eddie, and perhaps it did. But I always thought Eddie’s comedy was mean. I used to say, “Eddie, be a little nice” and that would piss him off... I finished [filming Harlem Nights] thinking that Eddie didn’t like me.”

Pryor had a much easier time on set with Redd Foxx. He was another comedy great, a generation older than Pryor, who gave him one of his first breaks at a standup club he owned in Los Angeles. Foxx was the film’s truly comic relief, playing Bennie Wilson, a shortsighted croupier who’s too embarrassed to put on his glasses. Before Harlem Nights, the closest Pryor and Foxx got to appearing together was featuring on comedy compilations released by Laff Records. A sincere bond is sensed when the two face each other on camera, teasing one another like only dear old friends do.

The characters in Harlem Nights aren’t as tough as expected from people engaged in semi-legal (at best) activities. Quick’s first and ugliest fight is against Vera, Club Sugar Ray’s Madam. Frighteningly portrayed by gospel singer Della Reese, she doesn’t take lightly any accusations of stealing and encourages Quick to give her his best shot. Arsenio Hall, in an over the top cameo, is the only one who is truly gun crazy and looking for blood. The soundtrack by jazz legend Herbie Hancock had, surprisingly, added cartoonish elements to the few chases and punch lines thrown in.

Harlem Nights is hardly violent, but does offer glimpses of racial tension. Danny Aiello, as a crooked policeman looking for his share, doesn’t seem bashful to admit “Colored guys with guns make me nervous” or how much he is bothered by seeing “... you guys with the fancy suits and cars and nice houses and I’m living in a fucking hovel.” Also, a match between the local hero, a black boxing champion and an Irish contender indicates one of the undeniable forces behind sports in America and is also pivotal in Sugar Ray’s eventual grand exit plan.

The film disappointed many who saw great promise in it as an ode to Harlem’s heyday and the critics disdained it. A loose and nasty script combined with untrained directing skills made the film a baffling mixture of genres, never excelling in either comedy or action-drama. Yet, in some aspects, the outcome was fair enough. It did very well at the box office, grossing three times its $30 million budget. Plenty was expected, with Pryor saying of the pre-production: “The potential had guys in Hollywood putting money down on new Porsches and vacation homes.” For its costume design, the film earned an Academy Award nomination, but was helpless against that year’s winning outfits in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V.

A decisively satisfying result might have been achieved had Murphy acted simply as a director or producer. There couldn’t have been any greater tribute in leaving the entire screen time to the “Original Gangsters” trio of Pryor, Foxx and Reese. Focusing on those show-biz veterans, who honestly knew and loved each other for ages, would have shown what it really means to bid farewell to an era. Despite Harlem Nights’ faults and the mess in Club Sugar Ray’s, at least they checked their egos at the door.

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