Harlem Nights

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In Harlem, New York, 1918, Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) has a dice game. Nearly killed by an angry customer, Ray is saved when 7-year-old errand boy “Quick” shoots the man. Ray decides to raise Quick.

Twenty years later, Ray and Quick (Eddie Murphy) run a nightclub called “Club Sugar Ray”, with a brothel in back run by madam Vera (Della Reese). Smalls (Thomas Mikal Ford), who works for the gangster Bugsy Calhoun (Michael Lerner), and Miss Dominique LaRue (Jasmine Guy), Calhoun’s mistress, arrive. Smalls and LaRue have come to see the club and report to Calhoun. Later, Calhoun sends corrupt detective Phil Cantone (Danny Aiello) to threaten Ray with shutting the club down unless Calhoun gets a cut.

Ray decides to shut down, but first wants to make sure he’s provided for his friends and workers. An upcoming fight between challenger Kirkpatrick and defending champion (and loyal Club Sugar Ray patron) Jack Jenkins (Stan Shaw) will draw a lot of money in bets. Ray plans to place a bet on Kirkpatrick to make Calhoun think Jenkins will throw the fight. Ray also plans to rob Calhoun’s booking houses. A sexy callgirl named Sunshine (Lela Rochon) is used to distract Calhoun’s bag man Richie Vinto (Vic Polizos).

Calhoun thinks Smalls is stealing and has him killed. Quick is noticed near the scene by Small’s brother (Arsenio Hall) who tries to kill him. Quick kills him and his men. Calhoun sends LaRue to seduce and kill Quick. Quick realises he is being set up and kills LaRue.

Calhoun has Club Sugar Ray burned down. Sunshine seduces Richie Vinto and tells him she has a pickup to make. Richie agrees to pick her up on the way to collect money for Calhoun. Richie gets into an accident orchestrated by Ray’s henchman Jimmy (Charlie Murphy). Ray and Quick, disguised as policemen, attempt to arrest Richie, telling him that the woman he’s riding around with is a drug dealer. Quick attempts to switch the bag that held Calhoun’s money with the one Sunshine had placed in the car but two white policemen arrive. Richie explains that he’s on a run for Bugsy Calhoun, so they let him go.

The championship fight begins. Two of Ray’s men blow up Calhoun’s club, to retaliate against Calhoun for destroying Club Sugar Ray. At the fight, Calhoun realizes it was not fixed as he thought, and hears that his club has been destroyed. Quick and Ray arrive at a closed bank. Cantone arrives, having followed them. Ray’s crew seal him inside the bank vault.

Richie arrives to deliver Calhoun’s money, but tells Calhoun that the bags of money had been switched with bags of ‘heroin’, which turns out to be sugar. Calhoun then deduces that Ray was behind the plot. Vera visits Calhoun and tells them (as part of an act) where to find Ray and Quick. Believing her, Bugsy and his men arrive at Ray’s house. One of his men trips a bomb, killing them all. Ray and Quick pay off the two white men who disguised themselves as the policemen earlier. Ray and Quick take one last look at Harlem, knowing they can never return and that there will never be another city like it. They depart for an unknown location as the credits ensue.


Back in the 80s, Eddie Murphy could do no wrong, whether it be wearing a leather suit on stage for a comedy stand-up movie, playing some kind of babysitter for a child emperor, portraying multiple characters in one of the best comedies of the decade, or playing a Harlem gangster, as he does in Harlem Nights. This is one of Murphy’s films that split audiences and critics in terms of reception. Critics hated it while audiences loved it, but what was the reason for the split? Why did critics get so up in arms with vitriol for this film? One can only but wonder.

What is this about?

Sugar Ray, the proprietor of an illegal casino in 1920s Harlem, must contend with mobsters and corrupt cops who want to put him out of business. But with the help of his promising heir, he pulls out all the stops to stay afloat.

What did I like?

Generations. Eddie Murphy has long listed his biggest influence was Richard Pryor who had said that Redd Foxx was his inspiration. All three are in this film. Seeing these three comedic greats in one film is something to be seen, especially considering that they have quite a few scenes together, playing off one another to great comedic effect. Never let it be said that there is a generation gap amongst comedians. Funny is funny! Reese’s. Della Reese manages to standout in this film full of great comedic talent. I attribute this to her initial entrance. Normally, I’m not a fan of loud black women, but the way she enters and just starts messing with everyone, including Eddie Murphy’s character is just hilarious, especially since it escalates into a fight out back that culminates in a shooting that is brought up many times for the rest of the film.

Drop me off in Harlem. I have two things to say about this being set in Harlem. First, there is plenty of use of Duke Ellington music that fits with the era in which this film is set. Second, for a film set in Harlem, this is not an exclusively African-American cast, there are some Caucasian characters, not something identified with Harlem. Still, it is something to be taken note of because, as we all know, had this been a Spike Lee joint, there would be little to no diversity in the cast, and the villain would be some super racist, rather just a businessman.

What didn’t I like?

Boxed in. Boxing is a dangerous sport that can lead to all sorts of brain issues. This is why it is no surprise they made the champion boxer suffer from a severe stutter. I actually had an English teacher in college who had a stutter that was even worse, but he wasn’t a boxer…as far as I know. So, what was my issue with the fighter? Clearly, it was used for comedic effect, but I think they may have gone too far. Now, I may be a little more sensitive than others when it comes to stuttering, as I have bouts of it myself, but I still think this could have been done more tastefully.

Booze, babes, and guns. Audiences flock to mobster movies for 3 factors, liquor, girls, and shootouts. There is plenty of liquor here, it takes place in a speakeasy, of all places. Girls, eh…Jasmine Guy (who is overrated and wooden…I’ll get to her in a second), and the gorgeous Lela Rochon, so that’s covered. Guns? The one shootout scene actually is one of the funniest scenes of the film, but doesn’t take place with any gangsters, but rather the brother of one of them wanting revenge, and crying the whole time. I would have liked for there to have been more of a gang war, if you will, but given the age of Pryor’s “mob”, it might not have worked out that well.

Not Princess Jasmine. Growing up, I was in love with Jasmine Guy when she was on A Different World. I think it was something about that Southern accent. Then, I started seeing her on other shows and in movies, like this one. I have come to the conclusion that the magic she used to create the characterization for Whitley on the show was a one-hit wonder, because this woman cannot act. With everything I see her in, she is wooden, uncharismatic, uninterested, and the adjectives can go on and on. Why Murphy cast her, I can only wonder, he should have taken any other the other cast members from A Different World *COUGH* Lisa Bonet *COUGH*, if that is where he picked her from. Surely, they would have brought life, vigor, and actually been the bombshell that this character deserved to be.

I can never say how much I love this era and films that are set in it. Harlem Nights is able to capture some comedic moments in a light gangster film. Why do critics hate this so much? I really don’t know. I guess because of all the cursing, but this is an Eddie Murphy flick, what did they expect? Actually, it is tame compared to some of his other films. As I read on a message board somewhere, “did they expect Out of Africa, Casablanca, or Citizen Kane?” Critics just don’t get it apparently. So, do I recommend it? Yes, this is a highly entertaining film. No, it isn’t one of the best of Eddie Murphy’s films and is often mistaken for another Harlem flick, A Rage in Harlem, but it is still worth a few viewings. Check it out!

3 3/4 out of 5 stars


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