Stuck in between the Hollywood star system and nascent independent cinema, Richard Pryor never got the roles he deserved — and it’s our loss
These are confusing times for American blacks. Some of us have joined the highest levels of political power and cultural prestige, but collectively we are, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, more economically imperiled than we’ve been in generations. In trying to make sense of this contradiction ridden position, I wonder what Richard Pryor, had he remained living and healthy, would have had to say. It’s hard to imagine Pryor wouldn’t have found the irony in this, promptly devising ways to detonate it in our faces with delicately designed anecdotes. Perhaps, like Eddie Murphy, fame would have insulated him, caused him to go all LCD Soundsytem on us and lose his edge. Pryor, who passed away in 2005 at age 65, didn’t live to see an overly cautious, frequently emasculated black President, although he parodied the concept long before it seemed possible. The comedy he’s best known for was stridently political in a way so intimate and tinged with everyday vulnerabilities that from the vantage point of history it’s possible not to even notice. He inhabited the experiences of working class urban and exurban mid-to-late 20th century blacks, finding cathartic waves of laughter in the sex lives, addictions, familial relationship, and delicately concealed anger of the kind of people he almost never got to play on movie screens.
Nevertheless, Pryor became the definitive black American movie star in the late 70s and early 80s. By then, it was clear Bill Cosby, whose middlebrow, safe for white audiences, distinctly middle class act had once been Pryor’s most significant inspiration would, despite his persistent popularity on TV, never be much of a leading man in the cinemas. His and Pryor’s Uptown Saturday Night co-star and director Sidney Poitier’s popularity dried up after the liberal integrationism he so staunchly represented in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fell out of fashion with the black rank and file.
Early 70s standouts like Fred Williamson, Lawrence Neal, Louis Gossett Jr., Ron O’Neal, Billy Dee Williams, and Max Julien, while all magnetic if uneven performers, never showed anywhere near the comedian’s promise. Pryor found himself a comic foil to many of those men during the heady years following the release of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, when revenge thrillers and crime dramas with black casts known forevermore as blaxploitation pictures were all the rage for economically imperiled studios. They were looking to cash in on content for the black viewers who, in the urban movie palaces left to them by white flight, made up a third of ticket buyers.
Just like in Highlander, there could only be one, at least in late 70’s and early 80’s Hollywood (or, for that matter, most other white institutions). For better or worse, black masculinity on the Hollywood stage was represented by a single man in the late Carter/early Reagan years: Richard Franklin Lennox Thomas Pryor.
Much of Pryor’s filmography will be on display this month when BAMCinematek unspools “A Pryor Engagement,” an eighteen film retrospective which begins on February 8 with a screening of Richard Pryor: Live in Concert. Perhaps the most lauded comedy concert film of all time, it contains a sweaty, vulnerable, and profane performance that became Pryor’s signature. At the time, Pauline Kael observed:
“When [Charlie] Chaplin began to talk on-screen, he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man; if he had found the street language to match his low-life, tramp movements, he might have been something like Richard Pryor, who’s all of a piece—a master of lyrical obscenity. Pryor is the only great poet satirist among our comics. His lyricism seems to come out of his thin-skinned nature; he’s so empathic he’s all wired up.”
Unlike Chaplin however, Pryor, or for that matter the black American filmmaking apparatus as a whole, never controlled the means of production. The so-called black movies of his early career were, with notable exceptions of course, made on the cheap by studios — also with significant exceptions, initially Van Peebles pere, Ossie Davis, and Gordon Parks, later in the cycle Parks Jr. and Michael Schultz — let the representation of African-American street life rest in the hands of white writers and directors. No alternative stream of black wealth ever appeared to prop up a more honest black film scene despite the outpouring of gifted black directors from the shadow of the studio system in the mid 70s. Many of them, like Haile Gerima, Charles Burnett, and Julie Dash had to rely on the waning days of American state film subsidies and more established routs for specialty cinema like European TV to fund stories of black life after Civil Rights Movement ideals faded to the uncomfortable realities of the 1970s.
As Pryor blossomed into a compromised mega-stardom, independent film had yet to grow into the thirty year cycle it recently exited as a viable, sustainable industry, with its own distributors, financiers, sales agents, and name auteurs. Partial co-optation by accumulated wealth, agency representation, and state subsidy would have allowed Pryor a space to develop projects that could have spoken more directly to the experiences and perspectives he revealed in his stand-up comedy routines.
His one directorial effort, the nakedly autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling, made on the down slope of his mainstream popularity, is uneven, hampered by the worst aspects of 80s aesthetics. Pryor plays himself from his early 20s to his mid-40s; he’s convincing the entire time, but the utter falseness of the conceit, like the uncomfortably comedic scenes he was forced to perform by Paramount in the otherwise maudlin 1982 Vietnam vet returns home drama Some Kind of Hero, weigh down the entire project. Nonetheless the nearly forgotten Jo Jo Dancer, which was released to little fanfare, contains a risky earnestness that Hollywood never indulged.
He was a standard bearer for a retrograde era then, a time of receding hopes, the left’s generational project in tatters, the reactionary right rapidly discovering ways to exploit the failures of and fear inspired by Black Power politics and urban decay. Despite the hard fought gains won by the Civil Rights Movement, which won in two pieces of legislation the freedoms and protections black advocacy groups sought for a century, Pryor’s ascendancy as a crossover comic superstar coincides with the end of the effective era of a politics of American blackness. Silver Streak, his first mainstream studio hit which grossed over 50 million dollars on a budget of six, marked the beginning of his lucrative decade-and-a-half-long role as second fiddle to Gene Wilder. It opened a month after Jimmy Carter’s election which, given the support he garnered from previously radicalized blacks and his retreat from the most noble aspects of the McGovern platform, effectively brought the curtain down on the era of Black Power.
Pryor was the scion of a Peoria not so different than the other small cities throughout the region, like Gary or Akron or East St. Louis. Here many among the first waves of blacks who left the South for the industrial Midwest during the great migration established middle class lifestyles and incomes in safe and well educated communities. He had it hard on those streets nonetheless. They taught him, to paraphrase the Fassbinder, that love is colder than death. Especially love of self.
He grew up in a brothel run by his grandmother. She employed her daughter and Richard’s mother as a prostitute there. She abandoned him by the age of 10. They were ostensibly middle class, but the fact that his childhood, marred by sexual abuse and neglect, reliant on her sex work, was so troubled goes a long way perhaps toward explaining why he never quite learned to take care of himself. Despite his dexterous, empathic exterior, Pryor existed on a perpetual anxious edge in adulthood. Well-publicized episodes with guns, drugs, and explosions made him famous, and he made them in turn the subjects of his most lasting art. In his comic routine “Hank’s Place”, he describes in both harrowingly bleak and surprisingly warm and nostalgic terms what his grandmother’s brothel was like:
Hank’s was the name of it. It was after hours and, you’d go there, the guys used to go there and shoot craps and play cards and… eat fish sammiches. That was the thing. It was a beautiful place, it was beautiful people man, everybody was different, everybody was an individual, a lot of tricks used to go there, a lot of farmers used to go there looking for thirteen year old girls. [white Midwestern farmer voice] Say, just give me one of them girls, one of them fourteen year old ones boy, c’mon now, I got a little money. [his own voice]. It’s rough, but that’s the way it went down. So I used to go there and just watch.
Pryor had a Midwestern earnestness about him, even in his Cosbyesque middlebrow period in the mid to late 60s. After escaping the Midwestern chitlin’ circuit for Greenwich Village, he told jokes that didn’t involve winos and aliens, carpenters and jack-legged preachers, fucking and shitting, doing cocaine on his grandmother’s dining room table and lighting himself on fire while freebasing, but he still described a lifestyle in his 1968 self-titled debut album that middle and working class negroes recognized, and he did it in a voice that, while still in formation, was true and irrepressible.
In the late 60s, Black Power hadn’t freed him to be who he was quite yet, or perhaps it hadn’t yet changed him. The urgency and pain that would jump from the microphone in his first couple of classics — 1971’s Craps (After Hours) and especially 1974’s That Nigger’s Crazy — was still erupting in fits and starts. He may have briefly played a black radical in 1968’s Wild in the Streets and a wino in 1971’s You’ve Got to Walk It Like You Talk It Or You’ll Lose That Beat, but the Richard Pryor we know and faintly remember these days first really appears on screen as the doomed sidekick Slim to Max Julien’s pusher turned pimp in Michael Campus’ blaxploitation blockbuster The Mack. It was a life he knew well.
Pryor’s career, as brilliant as it was, somehow feels incomplete and unsatisfactory given his raw ability. Despite a career of memorable supporting turns and workmenlike comedic leads in studio fare from the 80s, he only got one chance to play the type of complex, vulnerable, and fully rounded character he could have spent a career crafting, the type who was not far removed from the people he knew intimately. In Taxi Driver author Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, the magnificent rust-belt crime drama Blue Collar, Pryor plays an auto-worker caught in capitalism’s ugly grasp. He’s a good-humored man with mouths to feed, bills to pay, and friendships to maintain who becomes embroiled in a situations so ethically untenable that no one could emerge unscathed. The film was almost derailed during production because of antipathy that developed between Schrader and his hard-living leads Harvey Keitel and Pryor; Schrader had a nervous breakdown during production, and many scenes in the film are played as long single takes because the actors were so eager to get out of each other’s company they refused to shoot more coverage. It meditates on a trio of auto workers (Yaphet Kotto plays the third) who get hip to a union scandal while trying to take from the union till themselves. Vincent Canby said it all in his review for the New York Times. “Richard Pryor has a role that makes use of the wit and fury that distinguish his straight comedy routines.” Of course they put it on the poster. Of course the movie flopped.
He had more or less faded from the scene by my formative years in the 90s. MS claimed his vigor just as black movie stars went fully mainstream. He was relegated to playing a ghost of Hollywood’s past in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, perhaps as surprising a final film role as the movies have ever offered a man of his gifts. By the time of his death in the mid-aughts his influence was so broad as to have become nearly invisible. Straight-talking confessional black comedians were popping up everywhere as Pryor declined. When he died, Chapelle’s Show was two years gone itself. Newer forms of the black cast productions that had flourished during his performing adolescence and the tokenism that made megastars of Will Smith and to a lesser extent Denzel Washington were alive and well in their own spheres of the Hollywood cinema. His influence and the lessons of his career had become too entrenched in our culture to make out.
Black American movie stardom existed before Richard Pryor, flourished even, but through the lens of his arc from ace comic and blaxploitation bit player extraordinaire to the only black movie star of significance for the first third of the 80’s, we see the ways in which white America was only so ready for the coiled sadness and gallows humor that so many black filmmakers of his era would surely have offered him the chance to perform on the silver screen. He could be a movie star, but only on the market’s terms, which is another way of saying he could only be Gene Wilder’s straight man or, at his best, if just once, the spectre of the working man corrupted by the machinations of industry. His most lasting work will be his bold and singular comedy, but he’ll be most remembered for playing characters that were as disempowered as the black audiences without a Civil Rights Movement or a cinema to call their own.