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'Harlem Nights' : (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1989

"Written and Directed by Eddie Murphy" -- these are words that will forevermore strike fear in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. These are frightening words. Words to make the bravest man shiver. Once there was Freddy. Once there was Chuckie and Jason and Howard the Duck.

Now there is the scariest of them all.

Now there is "Harlem Nights."

Now there is EDDDDDDDDIE!

"Harlem Nights," which Murphy starred in, wrote, directed and executive produced, may not waddle its way to box office infamy, but it deserves to. "Harlem Nights" is Murphy's folly. It's a vanity production if ever there was one, launched on behalf of a star with vast amounts of vanity to soothe. And it's hard to imagine a more wrong-headed, aggressively off-putting exercise in star ego.

Murphy has chosen to create as the setting for his story not any recognizably real Harlem but a nostalgic, '30s-style dream Harlem -- a luxuriant movie-movie vision of white satin and diamonds and plush red velvet. Filmed entirely on sound stages and back lots, the film has a fluffy, confectionary richness, as if it were fashioned out of meringue. The centerpiece is the Club Sugar Ray, a gambling establishment owned by the dapper Sugar Ray himself (Richard Pryor). Assisting Sugar is a slick bit of goods named Quick (Murphy), who became a kind of surrogate son 20 years earlier in a bar fight. Sugar and Quick are small-time operators, but they run a class joint, one successful enough to worry their gangster rival, Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner).

The plot is a retread of the turf battles between club owners that were a staple of the Warners films of the period, except that here the confrontation has been staged in racial terms -- blacks against whites. Concerned that he might be losing business from his nightclub, Calhoune sends around his chief goon, a crooked cop named Cantone (Danny Aiello), to inform the competition that from now on, he gets a cut of the take. Lacking the muscle to put up a fight, Sugar and his pals are forced to run, but not before they put together a plot to nab a chunk of Calhoune's gambling money to cover traveling expenses.

Sounds innocuous enough. But as in the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies, "Coming to America" and "Raw," the tone is ugly, misogynistic and outrageously profane. Every woman is a whore. Every white man a bigot. And the dialogue goes something like this:

"Kiss my boink."

"No, you kiss my boink."

Except that this is a movie that never uses euphemisms. Ever.

A movie is a great plaything for someone like Murphy, and perhaps there is nothing that reveals more about a man than his choice of toys. This one allows him to create his own world, and the one he's created is

pristine and insulated -- it's a world with virtually nothing of the world in it.

But the film's sterile look is completely at odds with its down-and-dirty sensibility. What's wild about the style Murphy has chosen is that it doesn't seem to have anything to do with him. If Pryor or Redd Foxx (who plays Bennie, a near-blind croupier) had made a film as grungy-souled as this one, it might make sense. They started their careers opening for strippers and working the blue end of the street. But Murphy is television-generated and worked comedy clubs catering to middle-class kids. When he uses obscenity, as he does incessantly here, you feel as if he is channeling the past lives of other black entertainers. It's as if he is the new kid trying to impress the older guys on the playground.

One of the older guys is Pryor, and the remarkable thing is that, in the middle of all this trash, Murphy gives him his dignity and even some elegance -- he manages to do right by him. This is the best Pryor has been in a movie in years.

Murphy hasn't done as well by himself, though. His directorial work is amateurish at best. And as a performer he looks as if he is in agony, as if his mother made him stand in front of the camera for punishment.

When a star becomes as powerful as Murphy, the first word to vanish from the lips of the studio people who make money off him is "No." No is the forbidden word. The word nobody wants to say.

And when he came up with this idea, it was the one word that desperately needed saying.

Harlem Nights is rated R.

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