On this day in comedy on November 17, 1989 Harlem Nights was released by Paramount Pictures. Written, executive produced, and directed by Eddie Murphy, Harlem Nights featured practically every working veteran comedian of the era. Richard Pryor plays Murphy’s surrogate father who raised him and taught him how to get over in the world of crime after young Murphy shoots a man to save Pryor. They end up running a nightclub in Depression Era Harlem where criminal activity and corruption are always lurking in plain sight. And speaking of sight, Redd Foxx plays a damn near blind partner of the duo. Robin Harris and Charlie Murphy are henchmen. Arsenio Hall is a rival gangster and Della Reese runs the hoes at their brothel. Also featured are Tommy Mikal Ford, Jasmine Guy, Berlinda Tolbert, Michael Lerner, Danny Aiello, Stan Shaw, Uncle Charlie Murphy and Reynaldo Rey.
The plot revolves around Pryor being muscled in on by gangsters. He decides to retire before he has unwanted partners, but wants to make sure all his people are taken care of. So he plans a scheme for an upcoming fight and uses a call girl named Sunshine to help him carry out his plot. Sunshine was considered so sexy and fine for that time period that an Italian bagman called his surely equally Italian wife to tell her he wouldn’t be coming back and to take care of the kids. That along with a series of twists and turns leave Pryor and Murphy triumphant. They get the scam money, avoid death and arrest and leave Harlem for good after screwing its underworld system.
Critics panned Harlem Nights. They didn’t like the direction. They didn’t like the screenplay. They didn’t like the sets or the cinematography. They just plain didn’t like it. Regardless, Harlem Nights opened at number one at the box office its first weekend. On a budget of $30 million it grossed a total of $60,864,870 domestically and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton