It always seems that whenever a celebrity dies it’s only a matter of time before the vultures start circling to try and pick whatever meat they can off the bones of that person’s fame. Sometimes though, it amazes me how quickly they can rush something on to the market in order to cash in on the publicity surrounding a death.
Richard Pryor died December 10, 2005, and already Universal Studios, through their Franchise Collection series, have rushed out a re-release of an old DVD The Richard Pryor – 4 – Movie Collection. Crammed onto one disc are four movies that either star, or in one case, feature Mr. Pryor: Which Way Is Up, Brewster’s Millions, Car Wash, and Bustin’ Loose.
When Mr. Pryor died, I wrote in an obituary the following: “Hopefully when people remember Richard Pryor it will be for his honesty and integrity, not for the mediocre movies he made that failed to make use of his talents.” Like so many other comics whose gifts ran toward social satire, his talent did not translate to the big screen easily.
His stand up comedy dragged America, willingly or not, into the real world of Black America. Unlike the sanitized versions that had been presented on television, Good Times and The Jeffersons, he didn’t make any concessions to the mainstream audience about the manner in which White people were viewed by the African American community.
It was his work that paved the way for people like Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Chris Rock, and others. Richard Pryor proved that a black comedian could have a successful career creating material for a black audience. Unfortunately this never seemed to be understood by those making movies featuring Mr. Pryor.
The four movies included on this disc only serve to exemplify the misuse of his talents in film. Too often the humour comes across as almost stereotypical black buffoonery: simple poor black guy who somehow manages to come out on top over evil well educated white guys. It’s either that or some slick con-artist like his cameo roll in Car Wash as a sleazy preacher.
Even in Bustin’ Loose, which Mr. Pryor produced, falls into the trap of him playing a small time crook who gets the chance to redeem himself. Although he manages to work in a couple of good scenes where he pokes fun of liberal white guilt it doesn’t serve to salvage the whole. Even the presence of the esteemed Cicely Tyson can’t give this turkey wings to fly.
The material isn’t worthy of the talents that we know lie in Richard Pryor. Which Way Is Up is a lame tale of a poor farm worker who accidentally becomes involved in the struggle to unionize the labourers. The secondary plot of his character having to balance the needs of a wife and a girlfriend who he’s had a child with, comes dangerously close to perpetuating the stereotype of the irresponsible black male father figure and trying to make it seem funny.
Brewster’s Millions is a simple formula film where the man (Richard Pryor) has to choose between the woman he loves and a small fortune. The simplistic plot revolves around him having to spend $30 million dollars in a month’s time so that he can receive a massive inheritance. Of course the catch is that he’s not allowed to tell anybody.
So the woman of his dreams thinks he’s an irresponsible jerk, because he’s spending money like it’s going out of style. Of course, there are also the nefarious white lawyers who are trying to ensure that he doesn’t succeed in his task, so that the money can be funnelled into their coffers.
These movies are poor indications of the genius of Richard Pryor, and this re-issue is simply a shameful attempt to cash in on the man’s name shortly after his death. If they had wanted to properly honour his work it would have been more fitting to release one of his concert films. Live On The Sunset Strip would be a good start.
For a package that is supposed to commemorate the talents of an artist there is nothing included that gives the purchaser any information or background on Mr. Pryor. There’s no mention of his struggles with Multiple Sclerosis and cocaine addiction. The latter he beat, while the former, eventually, indirectly claimed his life.
This package of movies communicates none of the honesty and integrity that characterized his work as a stand-up comedian or actor. It would sadden me to think that people could be making judgements on the man’s career based on these four films. Do yourself a favour and seek out something else as a memento or an introduction to Richard Pryor’s career.