Harlem Nights

January 26, 2011

The opening credits are rather ominous, at least in retrospect: “Paramount Pictures Presents/In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions/A Film by Eddie Murphy/Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor/Harlem Nights.” That’s a lot of Eddie Murphys. And there are two yet to go before the credit roll is over: “Executive Producer” and “Written and Directed by.”

Murphy, a conglomerate unto himself and a very talented fellow, appears to have overreached this time. Harlem Nights is obviously a cherished project, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. It looks like a film made by a man who wasn’t required to answer to anybody.

Murphy plays Quick, the adopted son of a classy Harlem nightclub owner named Sugar Ray (played by Murphy’s lifelong idol, Richard Pryor). Their business is flourishing in the late 1930s, until Manhattan’s crime lord (Michael Lerner) decides to take a bite. He sends his top henchman, a crooked cop (Danny Aiello), to threaten Sugar Ray or close him down.

All of this is the setup for Sugar Ray’s response, which is to unleash an elaborate retaliation along the lines of The Sting, while Quick romances the bad guy’s mistress (Jasmine Guy).

It is a bizarre movie. A scene will begin like something out of Beverly Hills Cop only to end up looking like Once Upon a Time in America. A lot of characters are killed in ways that are evidently supposed to be funny, but come off as peculiar.

An index of the film’s failure is the period design. The costumes are great, the music is beautifully chosen, the cars are vintage. But the behavior and language of the characters is absolutely rooted in the ’80s. There’s no effort to weed out anachronisms, or to conjure a sense of what Harlem must have felt like in the 1930s (despite a couple of authentic supporting performances by Redd Foxx and Della Reese). Everything is breezily superficial.

Two sequences come to mind as original. One is the prologue, in which Murphy’s character, as a child, first comes to Pryor and coolly shoots an adversary dead. The second is a boxing scene in which the black world champion is fighting a great white hope; as each boxer lands blows, the different halves of the crowd jump to their feet—exactly one half is white, the other black.

Among its other problems, Harlem Nights comes off as awfully mean-spirited toward women. This has been a criticism of Murphy before, but he seemed to be maturing pleasantly with his previous film, Coming to America, which was a charming love story. Harlem Nights is a step back in almost every way, and it displays no evidence that Murphy has any kind of touch as a director. Worst of all, he’s accomplished the unthinkable. He has made Eddie Murphy not funny.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1989

A real dud. Pryor’s career, which had been a skyrocket earlier in the decade, was now winding down for a variety of sad reasons (he’d had his own self-directed flop a couple of years before this—Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling—which at least had some strange energy to it).