Movie Review: Harlem Nights had potential…does it reach it?


Original Theatrical Release: November 17, 1989


Directed by: Eddie Murphy

Produced by: Mark Lipsky, Robert D. Wachs

Music by: Herbie Hancock

Cinematography: Woody Omens

Screenplay by: Eddie Murphy

Budget: $30 million

Box Office: $60.9 Million

Starring Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Michael Lerner, Danny Aiello, Red Foxx, Della Reese

The Setup

Richard Pryor is Sugar Ray, playing dice with some of his boys and having a good time in 1918 Harlem. A young boy delivers Ray some cigarettes and spooks another superstitious gambler. Ray convinces the man to continue playing in spite of a kid being in the room, which the man thinks is bad luck. What happens next sets up the dynamic between that little boy (a young Quick, played by Murphy) and Sugar Ray.

Sugar Ray: I’m going to take this little boy home to his mother.

Young Quick: My mama’s dead.

Sugar Ray: Well, your daddy?

Young Quick: My father’s dead, too.

Sugar Ray: Did you kill them?

Young Quick: No, they just dead.

Sugar Ray takes Quick under his wing and the two develop a special father-son like bond over the next 20 years.

“They’re up to something big”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy revisiting this film from Murphy. It seemed to serve as a metaphorical, “changing of the guard”‘ when it came to the comedic legends of the past (Pryor, Foxx) handing over the reins to the young, up-and-coming talent (Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Robin Harris, and Charlie Murphy). Although Harlem  Nights is not something I would dub a ‘comedy’, it does have some great moments between this cast that will absolutely have you floored with laughter. At the time (1989), many of the cast here were some of the major players on movies, television, or even stage. We all know Red Foxx and Pryor had stellar careers, but many of the supporting cast of this picture went on to carve out accomplished careers themselves. Della Reese began as a singer in the 1950s, landed a talk show in the 60s, and even became an ordained minister. She was about five years away from playing the role she’s best known for (Tess, Touched by an Angel) when Harlem Nights was released. Aiello was already receiving buzz for his part in Spike Lee’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ for his role as ‘Sal’, owner of the pizzeria. Do the Right thing opened in Spring, and Harlem Nights in the Fall. Not a bad way to end the year for Mr. Aiello, wouldn’t you say so? Jasmine Guy was smack dab in the middle of her run with the popular ‘Different World’ sitcom. Thomas Mikal Ford would later become ‘Tommy’ on Martin Lawrence’s sitcom, ‘Martin’. As evidenced by this hunk of paragraph, this movie was loaded with talented actors and actresses.

“You blind Mother!@#$”

My biggest issue with Harlem Nights is a simple one, but I’ll get to it here in a moment. Murphy and Pryor are running a nightclub that is later threatened by a crooked cop who is working for a mobster. The choices that are given to Sugar Ray and his friends are as follows:

  1. Shutdown your nightclub.
  2. Come work for me.
  3. Be forced to shutdown, financially ruined, and possibly worse.

With a picture as straightforward as Harlem Night is, the audience is already familiar with the many tropes mobster movies like to employ. With that being said, a movie with Harlem Night’s cast can work two ways itself:

  1. Be a funny, insightful caper movie
  2. Be predictable, curious but safe, and mildly amusing

What happens though is somewhere in between where critics and audiences would have expected. We get a very vague depiction of Harlem. A dull nightclub life. A boring, few days in 1930s Harlem, outside of what the characters are going through. Unlike other critics, I fail to see any major problems with how the characters are written. I do think settling for petty insults and Murphy’s comedic persona was a cop-out; given the amount of talent that was cast for this movie. Aiello plays his crooked cop straight and steals scenes regularly. Della Reese shines in the funnier banters between her, Foxx, or Murphy–but none of the principal players are very convincing caring the more serious tones of the film outside of Aiello, Pryor, and Murphy (to a point). Pryor does well as the ‘wait and see’, wisdom spouting father-figure to Murphy’s ‘hot-shot’ portrayal of Quick.

However, the stakes that are presented in this picture are often set aside to allow the comedians to take verbal ‘pot-shots’ at each other and the other characters around them. I’m willing to say that the only elements holding the plot together are Danny Aiello and Michael Lerner (the mobster running a rival nightclub). Jasmine Guy’s sultry mistress isn’t really a character but a tool, and she isn’t around very long to really make an impact outside of advancing the plot. There is also a sub-plot involving the rival club owners betting on a boxing match that ties into the plan Sugar Ray and Quick come up with to outwit Aiello and Lerner’s gang. But we never really see them planning it out–we only get to see them being one step ahead. Why? As far as I can tell, the only reason Sugar and Quick are one step ahead, is because that’s the way Murhpy wrote them to be. The story doesn’t necessarily need the heroes to lose, but I was definitely left wondering how the two of them were able to set this ‘elaborate’ plan in motion.

Harlem Nights is a cruise. Not too exciting, but not too dull. Especially if you’re cruising with comedic legends the likes of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. The problem is that they want you to enjoy the ride and not worry about the destination. I didn’t think the ride was all that fun, and the final destination sort of left me wanting this film to go in a different, less predictable direction.  That’s not to say I don’t recommend this movie, but on revisiting it after such a long time (7 years); I was less impressed this time around, than I was as a younger, 20-something. I will say the scenes with Arsenio Hall crying were among the hardest times I laughed at a movie in a long time.

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