In 1989, I’d likely just become comfortable reading without placing my index finger under words; I’d heretofore predominantly grown up in a pretty strict Southern Baptist household under the watchful eye of a school-teacher grandmother and a grandfather who spent days crafting dentures for the VA Hospital, and spent his evenings fattening up farm animals for the eventual slaughter. As such, ‘cussing’ wasn’t something I was particularly allowed to do, nor was I much permitted to consume media that featured any sort of foul language.
At some point a few years later, someone in my family donated us a Beta VCR, along with a box of tapes; being without cable during that time, my mother was so happy that we’d have something to watch that she forgot to go through the tapes to make sure that they were age-appropriate for me and my two younger brothers. As such, we were treated to many an R-rated film, including First Blood, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and of course, Harlem Nights.
Written, executive-produced, directed by and starring Eddie Murphy, Harlem Nights was intended to be a period piece; he’d always wanted to work with his friend and mentor, Richard Pryor, and he cast veteran black comedians as his co-stars including Della Reese, Redd Foxx, Robin Harris, Arsenio Hall, Thomas Mikal Ford and his brother Charlie Murphy. Reception by mainstream critics was unforgiving, and many considered the movie to be a when it brought in about half the return that Murphy’s previous successes like Coming To America and Beverly Hills Cop II. Still, it became a cult classic for Black America and is often cited as a source of style inspiration for many in my generation.
The film takes place in New York during the 1920’s, right in the middle of The Harlem Renaissance; in the wake of the Great Migration, around 300,000 Blacks had moved north from southern states, with a great many settling in Harlem. This concentration produced a swelling of Black pride, which in turn resulted in an explosion of Black culture and advancement. Stars like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Lena Horne ushered in a new Jazz sound for the era. Poets like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and Jean Toomer captured the essence of the rebirth in verse, lending credence to the idea that we too could be stylish, sophisticated and respected.
Murphy’s take on 1920’s Harlem is lush with tailored suits, wool trenches and diamond-tipped bowties. He and Pryor play father-and-son owners of an after-hours gambling spot & nightclub where anything less than a shirt, tie and jacket won’t make it past the door; ivory shawl-collar dinner jackets with bright red carnations, pin-striped overcoats with silk-knit scarves and fedoras abound against an opulent background Black characters are presented as dapper, smooth gents who only show their rougher edges when circumstances require it. Through the eyes of the director, we were cultured but street-savvy, like a pearl-handled .22… dapper but vigilant, like high-dollar bodyguards. We were bold, we were refined and we were beautiful.
The Devil is in the Details… Indeed.