In 1989, Eddie Murphy was the comedy king with successful stand-up ventures and funny films like Trading Places, Coming to America, and Beverly Hills Cop under his belt. Murphy decided to expand his creative reach by writing, producing, and starring in the crime dramedy Harlem Nights. The film was destined to be a financial success purely off of his star power (and face) alone, but it did not fare well from a critical perspective.
It was slammed by most film critics and took home the Raspberry Award for Worst Screenplay. This isn’t surprising considering that most of the professional examinations of this unapologetically Black film’s themes and humor came from White perspectives. Thirty years later, Harlem Nights continues to be a celebrated staple in Black culture.
Harlem Nights is a period piece that focuses squarely on a slice of the Black experience in late 1930s Harlem. It fell at the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance’s powerful creative shift in the midst of Black neighborhoods combating segregation by turning to each other for support and resources. These resources included everything from Black-owned grocery stores to doctor’s offices to under the radar hangouts where people could find temporary reprieve.
In this narrative, the latter was Club Sugar Ray, which was ran by Sugar Ray and his adopted son Quick. Ray’s business combined with Madame Vera’s brothel were gateways to explore friendship, chosen family, sex work, police corruption, and the socioeconomic struggles of being Black in America with a comical twist. Harlem Nights tells the stories of those who hustle to make their dollars in a world set up for them to exist in poverty.
It’s kind of disheartening to see the lengths that Ray, Quick, and their circle have to go because a White criminal, who has a dirty detective on his side, wants a piece of their pie. Yes, they ultimately “win” this war but it comes at the cost of them losing their business and leaving the beloved city that has shaped their lives. Harlem Nights manages to insert some grave violence and intersperse that with humorous interactions between the characters. It’s a hard balance to strike, but it reflects the line that many Black people walk all the time. Sometimes, you gotta laugh to keep from crying.
This film couldn’t have a stronger set of comedy greats to make those funny moments shine. Eddie Murphy’s Quick was opposite his idol Richard Pryor’s Ray who paved the way for Murphy’s generation of comedians. In fact, Harlem Nights is packed with iconic Black pioneers in comedy and film: Della Reese, Charlie Murphy, Redd Foxx, Thomas Mikal Ford, Arsenio Hall, Reynaldo Ray, and Jasmine Guy, among others. That’s three generations of Black comedians coming together for funny moments that flowed between them effortlessly.
People like Murphy and Guy (who was on A Different World at the time) are still active in the industry and have become legends in their own right. But Harlem Nights features the final funny film moments of Foxx, who died in 1991, and Pryor’s own health took a decline after this film due to multiple sclerosis. He later died from a heart attack in 2005. So, for many Black fans, Harlem Nights is an excellent snapshot of two comedy greats as they passed the torch to future comedians.
It also showed a pre-Touched by an Angel Della Reese, who had already had a successful music career and a stint as a talk show host, at her absolute funniest. Reese, Rey, Charlie Murphy, and Ford—who coincidentally played a Tommy once again on Martin—are also among the actors who have passed away. The cast alone is enough to makes Harlem Nights a significant moment in Black history.
Harlem Nights came at a period when Black cinema was going through a renaissance of sorts by telling different stories of the Black experience—Lean On Me, Do the Right Thing, and School Daze (among others)—leading into the next decade.
There’s not a fan of this movie who doesn’t remember hilarious moments like Vera and Ray’s argument over the girls not making enough money escalating to a fight and the shooting of a pinky toe. Or Vera declaring that all her h**s are honest and Richie calling Barbara to say he’s never coming home again because of Sunshine. Quick’s shootout with Reggie, Bennie’s interactions with Vera, the mentor moments between Ray and Quick, and the genuine delight on the cast’s faces as they traded verbal (and a few physical) jabs make this film super quotable and an absolute delight to watch.
Harlem Nights will forever reign as a classic comedy movie that brings a fresh perspective to a period piece with a humorous revenge story about crime rivals, glamour, deceit, and Black life in an ever-changing community.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures