Harlem Nights is a 1989 American crime comedy-drama film starring and directed by Eddie Murphy, who also wrote. The film co-stars Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx (in his last film appearance before his death in 1991), Danny Aiello, Michael Lerner, Della Reese, and Murphy's older brother Charlie. The film was released theatrically on November 17, 1989, by Paramount Pictures. The film tells the story of "Sugar" Ray and Vernest "Quick" Brown as a team running a nightclub in the late 1930s in Harlem while contending with gangsters and corrupt police officials.

Harlem Nights
Poster artwork by Drew Struzan
Directed byEddie Murphy
Written byEddie Murphy
Produced by
CinematographyWoody Omens
Edited by
Music byHerbie Hancock
Eddie Murphy Productions
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • November 17, 1989 (1989-11-17)
Running time
116 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$30 million
Box office$95 million[2]

Harlem Nights was Eddie Murphy's only directorial effort. He had always wanted to direct and star in a period piece, as well as work with Pryor, whom he considered his greatest influence in stand-up comedy.[3] Reviewers panned the film, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert choosing Harlem Nights as ranking among the worst films of 1989.[4] At the 10th Golden Raspberry Awards, Murphy won the Razzie for Worst Screenplay.

Despite having a strong opening, the $30-million film was a disappointment at the box office, grossing $60,864,870 million domestically and $95 million worldwide, about half the gross of Murphy's previous hit pictures.

Plot edit

In 1918, Harlem, small-time hustler Sugar Ray is running a craps game. Nearly killed by an angry gambler who threatens him with a switchblade, Ray is saved by seven-year-old errand boy Vernest Brown, who shoots the man with Ray's gun. After being told that his parents are dead, Ray decides to raise the boy as his own, naming him "Quick" on account of his savvy. Twenty years later, Ray and Quick, now wealthy club owners, run a nightclub called "Club Sugar Ray", with gambling and dancing in the front, and a brothel in the back that's run by Ray's old friend Madame Vera.

Tommy Smalls, a black enforcer working for white gangster Bugsy Calhoune, and Miss Dominique LaRue, Calhoune's mistress, arrive to assess the club's profitability. Later, Calhoune sends corrupt policeman Sgt. Phil Cantone to threaten Ray with having the club shut down unless Calhoune gets a cut. Ray decides to relocate rather than pay, but only after making sure his friends and workers are taken care of. An upcoming fight between boxer Michael Kirkpatrick and defending champion (and loyal Club Sugar Ray patron) Jack Jenkins is expected to bring in large sums of money in bets. Ray places a large bet on Kirkpatrick to make Calhoune think he paid Jenkins to throw the fight. Secretly, Ray instructs his men to intercept the bets Calhoune's friends and associates have bet on the match and steal them. A sexy call girl named Sunshine is used to distract Calhoune's bag man, Richie Vinto, ensuring the theft is carried out successfully.

Calhoune has Tommy Smalls killed for theft before Quick is noticed near the scene by Tommy's brother, Reggie, who takes two men and corners him in an empty storefront. Quick shoots his attackers dead in self-defense and flees. Calhoune sends LaRue to seduce and kill Quick, but Quick anticipates this and kills LaRue with a gun hidden under his pillow.

Calhoune has Club Sugar Ray burned down. In retaliation, Sunshine goes to Richie and asks him to help her with a pickup. Richie agrees to meet her on the way to collect some money for Calhoune, only to get in a car accident orchestrated by Ray's henchman Jimmy. Ray and Quick, claiming to be law officers, attempt to arrest Richie, telling him that the woman he is riding around with is a drug dealer. Quick manages to switch the bag holding Calhoune's money with the one Sunshine had placed in the car before two white policemen suddenly arrive to investigate the accident. Richie explains that he is on a run for Bugsy Calhoune, so they let him go.

The championship fight begins. With Calhoune's gang distracted, two of Ray's men seize the opportunity to blow up his "Pitty Pat Club". At the fight, Calhoune realizes it was not fixed as he thought, and then receives word that his Pitty Pat Club has been destroyed. Quick and Ray arrive at a closed bank with Cantone following them. It turns out to be a trap, and Ray's crew seal Cantone inside a bank vault, but promise to call the police precinct to let him out when they have made their clean getaway.

Richie arrives to deliver Calhoune's money from earlier, but realizes that his bag has been switched with the one holding Sunshine's "heroin", which turns out to be sugar. An enraged Calhoune realizes that Ray is behind all of his recent setbacks. Vera, seemingly afraid for her safety, visits Calhoune and tells him where to find Ray and Quick. Calhoune and his remaining men go to Ray's hideout, where they trigger hidden explosives that kill all of them. Ray and Quick pay off the two white policemen from the accident and take one last look at Harlem, knowing they can never return and that there will never be another city like it. Despite this, the two, along with their associates Bennie and Vera, leave for an unknown location as the credits roll.

Cast edit

Production edit

The part of Dominique La Rue, played by Jasmine Guy, was originally cast with actress Michael Michele. Michele was fired during production because, according to Murphy, she "wasn't working out". Michele sued Murphy, saying that in reality she was fired for rejecting Murphy's romantic advances. Murphy denied the charge, saying that he had never even had a private conversation with her.[5] The lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.[6]

"It's turning out to be more pleasant than I expected," Pryor told Rolling Stone. "[Murphy is] wise enough to listen to people. I seen him be very patient with his actors. It's not a lark to him. He's really serious." "He's on top of the world and he's doing a hell of a job," agreed Foxx. "He sure knows how to handle people with sensitivity. He'll come over to your side and give private direction—he never embarrasses anyone." "You walk around here and look at the people," added Pryor. "Have you ever in your life seen this many black people on a movie set? I haven't."[7]

About the movie's reception, Murphy said: "It wasn't a pleasurable experience. I just wanted to direct—just to see if I can do it. And I found out that I can't, and I won't do it anymore. And the biggest thing is I didn't enjoy doing it. The problem with Harlem Nights wasn't the directing as much as it was the writing of it. It was just written fucked up, and that's because I threw it together real quick. And then it was disappointing because Richard wasn't the way I thought Richard was gonna be. I thought it would be like a collaborative thing where I would get to work with my idol, and then it would be like, "This is great." But Richard would come to the set, say his line and leave, it wasn't like a collaborative thing."[8]

Later he said: "That movie was a blur. It was Richard [Pryor], Robin Harris—all comedians. I remember Richard and Redd Foxx laughing offstage during the whole movie. The funniest shit was off camera, we're all just crying. Redd was a really funny dude, he would have the set screaming all the time. But afterwards it was like, Whoa, that's a lot of work. I was really young when I did it. I had one foot in the club, and one foot on the set, a lot of shit going on. It's amazing it came together." He also said he didn't know Pryor was sick at the time. "He was sick with MS by then, but nobody knew it was going on. And I was like a puppy to him 'cause he was my idol. "Hey! Let's go make this movie!" I never put it together what was happening till afterwards. So it was kind of sad, that part of it."[9]

Release edit

Box office edit

Opening in North America in mid-November 1989, the film debuted at No.1 its opening weekend.[10] It grossed $16,096,808 from 2,180 screens during those first three days setting a record pre-holiday fall opening[11] and would go on to collect a total of $60,864,870 domestically at the box office.[2] Despite a fair gross, the film was considered a box office disappointment by the studio, earning roughly half of Murphy's earlier box office successes Coming to America and Beverly Hills Cop II from the previous two years.

Critical response edit

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 26% based 38 reviews, with an average score of 3.9/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "An all-star comedy lineup is wasted on a paper-thin plot and painfully clunky dialogue."[12] On Metacritic, the film received a score of 16 based on 14 reviews, indicating "overwhelming dislike".[13] Michael Wilmington noted in the Los Angeles Times that the "production design lacks glitter. The movie also lacks the Harlem outside the gaudy gangland environs, the poverty, filth, pain, humanity, humor and danger that feeds these mobster fantasies."[14]

Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert panned the film; it was featured on their "Worst of 1989" review show with Siskel stating that it was racist, sexist, and badly directed, and Ebert agreeing with him, also adding that they thought Murphy was directing a film to call himself a director.[4]

About the negative reception, Eddie Murphy said: "There was a validity to a lot of things that people were saying about Harlem Nights but then they went extra mean on it because it was me. I guess they viewed it as someone with an ego out-of-control doing all these things... It wasn't that at all. As much as "let me see if I can do that" and i did. And i was like "I don't like this. I'm never doing this again".[15]

Movie theater shooting controversy edit

On November 17, 1989, two men were shot in the parking lot outside of the AMC Americana 8 theater in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan.[16] According to witnesses quoted in the Detroit Free Press, the shooting happened on opening night taking place during a shooting spree in the film's opening. A 22-year-old woman, who panicked and ran into traffic, was in critical condition two days later at the city's Providence Hospital; her name was withheld by police. Less than an hour after the shooting, police arrived at the theater to find a 24-year-old Detroit man who had shot at an officer. The gunman was wounded when the officer shot him back in the theater parking lot. The incident caused the theater chain to cancel showings of Harlem Nights. One resident of the area, D'Shanna Watson, said:

There were so many people in the theater and there was so much going on, they stopped the movie three times.[17]

Later that night, brawlers were ejected from a Sacramento theater showing Harlem Nights. Their feud continued in a parking lot and ended with gunshots. Two 24-year-old men were seriously injured. An hour later, Marcel Thompson, 17, was fatally shot in a similar fight at a theater in Richmond, California. When police stopped the projection of Harlem Nights to find suspects, an hour-long riot erupted. In Boston, Mayor Raymond Flynn saw so many fistfights taking place in a crowd leaving Harlem Nights that he at first threatened to close the theater down but decided to tighten police security at the theater. Flynn blamed the film for the riot, stating that it "glorifies violence." However, Raymond Howard, a lieutenant of the Richmond police department, defended the film, saying, "There's nothing wrong with the show. But this tells me something about the nature of kids who are going to see these shows."[18]

If there's a fight at McDonald's, what does that have to do with McDonald's? ... If there's a fight at Giants Stadium, are you going to blame the Giants? Of course not. It's not about the Eddie Murphy movie.[18]

— Bob Wachs, Eddie Murphy's manager, on the movie theatre incidents, December 4, 1989.

Accolades edit


References edit

  1. ^ "Harlem Nights". British Board of Film Classification. January 10, 1990. Archived from the original on March 27, 2022. Retrieved March 27, 2022.
  2. ^ a b "Box Office Information for Harlem Nights". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on May 1, 2012. Retrieved July 13, 2012.
  3. ^ Reid, Shaheem (December 12, 2005). "Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy Call Pryor The Real King Of Comedy". MTV News. Archived from the original on January 3, 2015. Retrieved January 5, 2015.
  4. ^ a b "siskelebert.org". Siskel and Ebert Movie Reviews. Retrieved August 19, 2023.
  5. ^ Zehme, Bill (August 24, 1989). "Eddie Murphy: Call Him Money". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on December 3, 2017. Retrieved May 30, 2016.
  6. ^ Kinetic Koncepts (April 7, 2017). ""New Jack City" ACTRESS Revealed Why She Filed $75M LAWSUIT Against Eddie Murphy". Old School Music. Kenner, LA. Archived from the original on January 9, 2019. Retrieved January 9, 2019.
  7. ^ Zehme, Bill (August 24, 1989). "Eddie Murphy: the Rolling Stone interview". Rolling Stone. p. 5o.
  8. ^ "Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee in Conversation: Our 1990 Cover Story". November 19, 2020. Archived from the original on April 29, 2021. Retrieved February 26, 2021.
  9. ^ "Eddie Murphy on Making His First Indie Movie, Celebrating Pluto Nash, and Returning to Stand-up". December 15, 2016. Archived from the original on February 15, 2019. Retrieved February 15, 2019.
  10. ^ "WEEKEND BOX OFFICE : Murphy's 'Nights' Overtakes 'Talking'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved June 14, 2012.
  11. ^ "'Home' finds a niche at the top; 'Rescuers' mild; 'Cyrano' solid". Variety. November 26, 1990. p. 8.
  12. ^ "Harlem Nights (1989)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 13, 2023.
  13. ^ "Harlem Nights (1989)". Metacritic. Retrieved July 22, 2022.
  14. ^ "MOVIE REVIEW : Eddie Murphy's 'Harlem Nights': Slick, Slack". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
  15. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yrw2BIlO6RU
  16. ^ "Southfield movie theater canceled all ..." Orlando Sentinel. November 20, 1989. Archived from the original on November 23, 2015. Retrieved July 29, 2015.
  17. ^ "Shooting, violence mar 'Harlem Nights'". Ludington Daily News. November 20, 1989. Archived from the original on September 15, 2012. Retrieved October 7, 2016.
  18. ^ a b "Violence Darkens the Bright Opening of Eddie Murphy's Plush, Flush Harlem Nights". People. Archived from the original on July 14, 2014. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  19. ^ a b "Official summary of awards". Razzies.com. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012. Retrieved August 24, 2014.
  20. ^ "The 62nd Academy Awards (1990) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved October 17, 2011.

External links edit

Preceded by Stinker Award for Worst Picture
1989 Stinkers Bad Movie Awards
Succeeded by