Published on September 13th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
Harlem Nights 
Summary: Its a beautiful movie to look at but 'Harlem Nights' is a confusing mess in terms of tone. Its cast of comedy legends each get moments to shine but the film is so slow and boring that it ultimately does them a disservice.
R | 115 min.
Director & Screenplay: Eddie Murphy
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $30 million | U.S. Box Office: $60.8 million (#21 of 1989)
When Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx get together in a single movie, Della Reese should not end up getting all the big laughs. That’s unfortunately the case with Harlem Nights — a confusing, lavish film that can only be described as a passion project for its lead actor.
In 1989, Murphy was arguably the biggest star in Hollywood and inarguably the biggest star in comedy. So what did he do with his artistic freedom? Naturally, he rounded up two of the most influential comics in history to star alongside him in a 1930s period film about a wannabe gangster.
I’ve written before about the dangers of successful filmmakers being given free rein to pursue a passion project and while Harlem Nights is nowhere near as bad as Barry Levinson’s Toys, it’s still a bloated letdown.
The movie — written and directed by Murphy — follows an aging nightclub owner named Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) and his young protegee Quick (Murphy) as they endure a major shakedown from a mafia crew in 1938 Harlem. Quick is hot-headed and passionate in dealing with opposition whereas Ray doesn’t mind letting things slide as long his after-hours club can stay open. Both men learn a bit from each other en route to pulling off a complicated scam that will give them the freedom to carry on their business hassle-free.
Harlem Nights is a jarring film to watch, as its classy look is in direct contrast with its coarse language. I’d expect nothing less than a raw, R-rated comedy from Murphy, Pryor and Foxx — three guys who made their names by pushing the envelope on stage. But that’s why I don’t understand Murphy’s desire to dress the film in beautiful colors and set it in the 1930s. I honestly believe Harlem Nights could have been a better film if it were set in 1989 New York and followed roughly the same storyline, obviously updated where needed.
Instead, we get a movie that doesn’t honor Harlem renaissance icons like Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois because it lacks any intellectual standing. Murphy probably just thought the time period made for slick costuming and represented an ample setting for a story about white-on-black oppression; it would have been nice if his story contained some meat.
Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” In Harlem Nights, Della Reese says, “I’ve got a girl whose pussy is so good, if you threw it up into the air, it would turn into sunshine.” Langston Hughes wrote, “I swear to the Lord, I still can’t see, why Democracy means, everybody but me.” In Harlem Nights, Murphy ponders the deep question, “What would a woman that fine want in a big, fat, nasty, greasy, fat, stank, bloated, cheesy-backed, 12-sandwich-eatin’ bastard?”
This movie would represent Murphy’s last screenplay credit until 2007’s Norbit. We all know the man can write a hell of a stand-up set and he’s constantly proven to be a gifted actor but perhaps he should leave the scripts to others. Interestingly, Harlem Nights remains the only film Murphy has directed. I think he handled that part moderately well because Harlem Nights is a well-made film that features well-delivered takes from all of its leads but its tone is a mess, which I blame more on the script than Murphy’s overall direction.
Enough bashing for now, let’s talk about how gorgeous this movie is. Harlem Nights is a beauty to gaze upon. The sets and outfits are immaculate and even the opening titles present an air of refined dignity reserved for Hollywood’s Golden Age. Costume designer Joe Tompkins (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Cross Creek) earned the film’s only Academy Award nomination but Harlem Nights could have easily been nominated for best art direction as well. The film — which reportedly cost $30 million to make — just looks expensive. As I wrote before, there is a level of class depicted onscreen during the movie that just isn’t reflected in its dialogue.
The film’s music selections are also deceptively elegant, as its score was written by jazz legend Herbie Hancock. Hancock’s score suits the period and the action but wasn’t as memorable as I expected when I read his name in the opening credits. If you’re a jazz lover, your head will start to nod along with the myriad Duke Ellington pieces Hancock sprinkles into the soundtrack. Standards like “Mood Indigo” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” are used appropriately but my favorite music moment comes when Louis Armstrong’s essential version of “Drop Me Off in Harlem” plays over the ending. It’s a perfect closing paired with a shot of the skyline at night.
Also, I was just happy Harlem Nights was over.
The movie’s pacing is brutally slow. It clocks in a nearly two hours and in that runtime, we only get three scenes where Murphy, Pryor and Foxx share the screen. These are the best moments of the film. Watching these guys talk shit and make each other laugh is priceless for anyone who values the history of standup comedy. Foxx is given some of the funniest lines of the movie and he effortlessly makes the most of every one. The only person who outdoes the former Sanford and Son star is the aforementioned Della Reese.
Yes, the same Della Reese who starred in over 200 episodes of CBS’s faith-based drama Touched by an Angel. Chances are your grandmother probably loved that show but she would be mortified to see Reese’s highlight reel from Harlem Nights. She plays a well-dressed, big-talking character named Vera, who operates a brothel out of Sugar Ray’s club. Vera trades verbal blows with Foxx’s character Bennie in a couple hilarious scenes; the best is when she complains that he put orange juice back in the refrigerator with only “a swallow” left in the bottle, to which Bennie replies, “Then swallow it and shut the fuck up!”
Reese’s greatest scene — and the film’s funniest — happens when she calls Murphy’s character Quick outside for a fist fight. He reluctantly accepts, leading to a bare-knuckled slugfest that ends with Quick shooting Vera’s toe off with a pistol. “You’re gonna be the nine-toe-havingest, limpingest bitch in Harlem if you don’t stop fucking with me,” Quick warns before taking the shot.
Murphy gives the movie’s best all-around performance, showing off his comedic chops and natural confidence as Quick. He also shows his gift for leading-man romantics in a memorable love scene. The problem with Quick’s character is that he’s essentially a wannabe gangster who never achieves the weight that Murphy likely imagined when writing the script. We don’t get a real sense that Quick is as dangerous as he wants to be because he doesn’t act as muscle at any point in the picture other than the first scene when he shoots a man dead as a small child.
Of the three leads, it was Pryor’s performance that left me most underwhelmed. His character, Sugar Ray, undoubtedly provides the heart of Harlem Nights but the role didn’t give Pryor many opportunities for laughs. In the film’s funniest scenes, Pryor is left being the quiet, sensible member of the cast. This is Richard freaking Pryor, one of the most gifted natural comics in history and Murphy sticks him with the sensitive role. I’m not saying Pryor doesn’t show up — he does a nice job playing a straight, father-figure role — but it’s a crime to not see him cutting up with the other guys in his crew. I think Murphy got overly sentimental in writing a role for his real-life mentor and idol.
Harlem Nights is a tonal mess that tells a story we’ve seen in dozens of blaxploitation films but tosses in a needlessly complicated third-act plot. It’s got a few very funny scenes but it feels like you’re wading through hours of filler between them. With the comic star power involved in this picture, it should have been the funniest — and edgiest — film since Blazing Saddles.