Blerd Film Club: Harlem Nights


It's amazing when a bunch of incredible comedians get together. In 1989 an incredible list of black comedians got together to make a crime film about a nightclub in Harlem. Red Foxx, Richard Pryor, Della Reese, Robin Harris Eddie Murphy, Charlie Murphy, and more came together for Harlem Nights. The film was a passion product for Eddie Murphey who wanted to star in a period piece, work with Richard Pryor, write and direct a movie. In this case, he accomplished all of the above.

The film starts in Harlem of course where a small time gangster named Sugar Ray is hosting a dice game. When one of the players gets angry and attacks him. A small child saved Ray by shooting the man. Ray learns the boy is an orphan and raises him as his own nicknaming him Quick. 20 years later Quick and Ray run a nightclub. There's dancing, gambling and a brothel run by Vera. They make up a small family although unrelated. Vera is like a mother to Ray and Quick. Her husband is Bennie, who operates the craps table, when he can see.

Tommy Smalls and Dominique LaRue who work for Bugsy Calhoune the main gangster in Harlm show up the club. Quick says hi, when he's not supposed to. Despite Ray warning him that Dominique doesn't just work for Bugsy Calhoune but is his mistress as well. They investigate the club for Clahoune who has heard about the club doing big business. After they leave Calhoune sends in corrupt police officers. They threaten to shut down the club if Calhoune doesn't get a cut of their profits.

Ray decides he's shutting down the club but wants to make sure everyone is financially taken care of before it's closed. Meanwhile tension in the club grows about how much money is coming in. This leads to Vera challenging Quick to a fight. Quick doesn't initially accept, but after being laughed out by men who know Vera as a fighter for decades laugh at him. She handily beats him until he hits her with a trash can. In response Vera pulls a razor blade and threatens to cut Quick. Quick being the sociopath that he is, shoots Vera in the pinky toe. However, he later makes the first apology of his life to Vera. The two admit they love each other, as she's the mother he never had. They're gangsters, but they're family. Their arguments about money don't last either as Calhoune blows up their club.

Ray comes up with the plan to place a fake bet against Jack Jenkins, a heavyweight boxer that frequents the club. This causes Calhoune to expect Jack will throw the fight and bet a large amount against him as well. Ray uses this opportunity to plan a robber of Calhoune's gambling den. In order to get to Richie, Calhoune's concierge or money transporter, Ray comes up with another plan. Ray has Vera send her best girl, Sunshine to seduce Richie. Richie truly falls in love with her. Not because of the sex but the companionship he doesn't have with his wife any longer. He calls his wife and tells her he's never coming home again. Meanwhile, Calhoune kills Smalls because he thinks he's a thief.

Sunshine says she has to make a drug run and Richie offers to accompany her. They have a car accident that was set up by Ray. Quick and Ray show up as cops and attempt to switch the bags. They intend to take Calhoune's bag of money that Richie has and swap it for a bag of heroin. But, the heroin is fake, because they don't sell drugs. Two white police officers show up and Richie tells them he's working for Calhoune and they let him go.

During the championship fight Ray has some of his men blow up Calhoune's rival Pitty Pat Club. While sitting at the boxing match Calhoune realizes that it wasn't a fixed fight at all. He rushes to the bank where his money is kept and spots Ray's crew. They lock Calhoune in the vault. When Richi delivers the money, he notices the bags were switched.

Calhoune deduces that Ray did this. He also learns the drugs are just sugar, so he can't even sell them to get the money back. Now he's certain Sugar Ray is responsible for this. Vera shows up and tells Calhoune where to find Ray and Quick. He's heard about Quick shooting her and believes she's out for revenge. Eagerly he rushes off to Ray's house. Calhoune and his men run in eager to kill Ray and Quick but set off a bomb killing them all.

The two white police officers from earlier are paid by Ray. Ray and Quick look at Harlem and discuss how it's the greatest city ever. However, they have to leave now due to the enemies they've made. The two meet with Bennie and Vera and the group leaves together.


One thing about the film is not only the amount of black actors employed but behind the scenes black people. Richard Pryor gave interviews about how he had never seen so many black people on a set before. Red Foxx on the other hand was just surprised how everyone cooperated and didn't try to stab each other in the back. Despite tripling the budget at the box office, critics hated the film. It was said to lack realistic poverty. Siskel and Ebert were "bored and offended" by the film.

One of the reasons the film was heavily disliked by so many critics may be the content. Sure, it wasn't the strongest story. However, despite being a crime film there's a lot of political discussion in there as well as discussion on race. The film doesn't hold anything back when it comes to corruption in police or politics. Additionally it heavily denounces racism. One thing all the main characters agree on is that there are no good white people in the world because even if they aren't racist, they allow others to be. Eventually, at the end of the film they receive help from two white men and agree that there are some good white people. This is the offending message in the film. Screenings were even shut down in many towns and an official statement had to be released by Eddie Murphy.

The movie is a gangster film with a nice mix of comedy. One thing they didn't want it to be was a sad film. There's a happy ending. Ray sets all his people up financially before retiring with the family he's created. The bad guys are gone and they have a new world to explore. However, watching it now it does seem like a sad film. With the except of Eddie, all of the main stars have passed on. Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, Della Reese, Charlie Murphy and Robin Harris have all passed on now. It makes the film a lot heavier than intended. It doesn't take away from the comedy, but it makes you realize you're watching something special. There's all these stars and future stars on set but it'll never be seen again.

Download a free copy of Darrell's book Phantasmagoricalread some of his other work at 12AMFiction.com and hear him on the Powerbomb Jutsu Podcast
Blerd Film Club: Harlem Nights Blerd Film Club: Harlem Nights Reviewed by Blerds Online on Thursday, February 14, 2019 Rating: 5

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