Movie Review: Harlem Nights

Richard Pryor's best movie role

December 11, 2005
Al Barger

Harlem Nights seemed to disappoint a lot of people. When this hit theaters in 1989, Eddie Murphy was at the peak of his clout. This once in a lifetime talent lineup of the three generational leaders of black comedy was highly anticipated. Eddie Murphy personally wrote and directed Harlem Nights. Yet the movie got mixed reviews at best, and probably did about half the business of a typical Eddie flick.

However, I say it's a fine movie, well worth watching on a number of counts. This was a major budget, prestige picture. There was a lot of thought put into every aspect of this, from the characterizations and dialogue to the sets and costumes. A lot of people just missed it.

That's understandable though, cause the movie came across as a curveball to audience expectations. With Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx together, people naturally expected the bang-up comedy of all time. Critics said that the movie wasn't that funny. They're somewhat right, but they miss the point. It's not a comedy.

Harlem Nights is pretty much a straight drama. There are naturally some funny parts, but it's just comic relief to cleanse the palette between the dramatic parts.

The movie happens in Harlem in the 1930s. For starters, the movie did get some proper recognition for the outstanding costumes, vintage cars and sets. This movie really looks sharp.

A local small neighborhood hustler Sugar Ray (Pryor) runs some gambling, and a nightclub and prostitution, making a decent living along with his adoptive son Quick (Eddie). Some real gangsters have decided to move in and run them out of town- or just kill them. Generally, Sugar Ray is inclined to run away and escape with their lives. His hotheaded son, on the other hand, is ready to go to war and start killing people.

This may be Richard Pryor's best scripted movie role. For whatever reasons, Pryor never got to be in very many especially good movies. Stir Crazy was decent, and maybe The Toy if you're generous, but his concert films were really his best movies. He mostly just never got a lot of his real essence into his movie roles.

Sugar Ray, though, had some depth, and seemed to capture some part of his soul. He struggled with his responsibility for the livelihoods and welfare of a lot of people. He got a lot of mileage out of worrying over how to keep his hotheaded son from getting himself killed. This role had about the most realness of any scripted movie role Pryor ever did.

I also give Eddie the writer a lot of credit for the Quick character. In short, Quick is not a particularly likeable character. Eddie Murphy gives him some charm and charisma, but the guy is not at all cute and cuddly. It's a significant dramatic risk in a lot of ways to draw this character in such a determinedly unsympathetic manner. That may be the point on which the movie losses some people- but it works well in dramatic terms.

A lot of criticism that way came over an infamous scene in which he shot Della Reese in the foot. That wasn't funny, see. Actually, it started out to be funny in the setup, arguing and carrying on, but it wasn't supposed to be funny once he actually did it. It created truly hurt feelings between Quick and his mother figure, besides the loss of a toe. It was, however, a good demonstration of the brutal nature of the character.

Harder for me to think on was when Quick killed Dominique La Rue, the Jasmine Guy character. They have a bedroom scene where Quick humps her brains out- when he's going to blow her brains out five minutes later. Yes, she was clearly intending to assassinate him. She every bit had it coming, but still. That's rough stuff- not a joke. I'm not sure about misogyny exactly, but the coldness of the gesture is pretty striking.

Lots of people had good roles here. The father-son relationship with Pryor and Murphy was the center of the action, but Redd Foxx generated some empathy in his role as the near-blind old card dealer. Even Arsenio Hall as Crying Man worked up a little decent pathos in his minor comic role.

They all had a good script to work with. The whole set up of the con and the execution was pretty outstanding. I don't know just how "realistic" the whole story was exactly, but it looks convincing on screen.

It's emotionally real, however, beyond the narrow specifics of this story. They were after some bit of serious expression of the black man's struggle in a hostile environment where the white gangsters owned the cops, and nobody would have raised a fuss over a couple of dead Negroes. They don't carry on much here about the oppression of blacks, cause it's so much in the grain of the social structure that they don't have to talk about it much.

By the end, there's some killing and blowing up of deserving thugs. But the really brutal thing was the comedically presented fate of Danny Aiello's wicked, corrupt cop who had been the most immediate threat. Note how he's left in the airtight abandoned bank vault, presumably to panic and try to draw small breaths for several DAYS until the air runs out. There's not a graphic act of violence, with movie blood on the floor, but if you think on it this is a MUCH worse fate than simply getting shot to death.

There's an idea underlying the movie that the young black man coming up just was not going to accept being held down the way older generations were. Old school says run away and live to fight another day. Young man says no- and prevails.

Eddie took this movie quite seriously. He didn't intend to waste this unrepeatable opportunity on telling yo-Mama jokes, or just fooling around. He did good by his elders.



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