Harlem Nights

Dir: Eddie Murphy, 1989



German Theatrical Release Poster


It’s fashionable among certain people, to find a celebrity, tear them apart and kick them while they’re down. For reasons unknown, they’ve chosen Eddie Murphy to be sacrificed by the “elite” clique.

For the past two decades, anybody can see that Murphy has made a fair few unwise choices regarding his roles. The Murphy that we know and love, with the eternal flowing of curse words, has long since been replaced by a family actor rolling out films such as Dr. Doolittle and Daddy Day Care.

But the erstwhile stand up comedian and cast member of Saturday Night Live, doesn’t deserve the scorn and ridicule that is forever poured in him.

Things seem to have started with Harlem Nights, his only directorial effort. Written by the man as well, Murphy stars in this period comedy as nightclub owner, Quick, in 1930’s Harlem, New York.

Parodying films such as The Cotton Club and The Great Gatsby, Murphy’s film takes a few inspirations from The Sting and James Cagney movies and makes it work. It isn’t entirely original but very few films truly are. The influences are prominent and noticeable but don’t detract from the enjoyment of the film.

At it’s heart is a comedy and a damn funny one. Casting his heroes of comedy, Murphy is able to coax brilliant performances from all involved without relying on the stereotypical portrayals of black Americans.

Richard Pryor is superb as Sugar Ray, nightclub owner and adoptive father of Quick. Pryor was a very underrated actor and here he shows the different emotions and characteristics he could play, deftly.

Mellow and exasperated, Pryor depicts Ray as a man who his tired and has had enough of the illicit activities coupled with the frequent violence he encounters.

The two outstanding stars of Harlem Nights is Della Reese as brothel madam, Vera, and Redd Foxx as “Snake Eyes” Bennie Wilson, croupier of the roulette table who refuses to accept that he is blind as a bat.

Playing Vera, Reese is hilarious as the mother hen to Quick and everybody else. With a Deep South accent, Reese spits f-words with aggression and a sharp, acidic flavour. Her fight with Quick in the back alley and the “pinky toe” incident is a riot and a memorable one at that.

But, without a doubt, the absolute pinnacle of the film is guest star Arsenio Hall as a gangster intent on getting revenge for the death of his brother. Incessantly crying and bawling, Hall is a comic masterpiece. The entire scene is a hoot.

Critics were very unfair to this film and Eddie Murphy in general, but, thankfully, not everyone was or is as snobby and could see the humour that Murphy was going for. It’s only now, 28 years later, that Murphy is getting the recognition for his directorial debut he deserves and the film is being reassessed.

This is a film where the haters need to be ignored. It’s funny, lightweight and easygoing.

A great evening’s entertainment.


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