Back in the days when Spike Lee complained that no African Americans on their own authority could make movies in Hollywood, he was proven completely wrong, (at least in one instance), by the film “Harlem Nights,” which was written and directed by Eddie Murphy. Harlem Nights has an all-star cast, including Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Red Fox, Della Reese, Arsenio Hall, Michael Lerner, and Danny Aiello. With this kind of talent, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to make such a movie be anything but terrific. Much to my chagrin, however, many movie critics and reviewers trashed the movie for reasons such as it was too profane to take place in the mid-1920s, and that every white man was portrayed as a racist. To that I respond: (a) did you actually expect a movie starring Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Red Fox to be easy on the profanity, and if so, you’ve had your head buried in the sand for quite some time (although I must admit that the word “fuck” or a derivative of the word was said approximately 133 times throughout the film), and (b) that all white men were cast as racists–give me a break; it was 1930s Harlem. I don’t think the portrayal is too off base or out of line.
As usual, I take a completely different position on this film. I thought it was hilarious and had a great story, as well as some fine performances by exceptionally funny actors. One of my favorite (yet relatively unknown) actors, Michael Lerner, played the villain Bugsy Calhoun and provided a stellar performance. Though I must say my favorite Lerner character was “Jack Lipnick” in the Cohen Brothers classic Barton Fink—but I digress, and that is for another day.
“Sugar” Ray (Richard Pryor) is the owner of a very successful illegal casino and has to contend with the pressures of a vicious gangster and corrupt policeman who wants to see him be driven out of business. Eddie Murphy plays his young, firebrand partner, and Redd Foxx is their sage mentor. Della Reese is the Madame in charge of the “ladies of the evening.”
The evil gangster’s night club is losing business. While Sugar Ray’s club is only frequented by African American customers and the gangster’s club only by whites, helped by the corrupt police detective Phil Cantone (Danny Aiello), the gangsters try to make Sugar Ray go out of business. Of course, it is only natural that you feel sympathy for Sugar Ray and his nightclub gang, especially when you see how detective Cantone operates. Eddie Murphy, “Mr. Quick,” wants to fight his way out guns a-blazing and suggests killing the gangsters in a clichéd gangster war a la “The Godfather.” But Sugar Ray, being older and wiser, has a wittier, more clever plan to ruin the gangsters. However simple and predictable the plot may seem, there is a wonderful twist in the end.
The clip I have picked is a great scene in which Eddie Murphy gets his butt whooped by Della Reese.