Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor) is a gambling man, with no cares or responsibilities, until he meets Vernest Brown, a seven-year-old orphaned errand boy who shoots an angry customer to save his life during a dice game. Fast forward 20 years and Ray and his foster son, “Quick” (Eddie Murphy) are running the most popular nightclub in town. Life is great for the duo: their club is profitable, as is the brothel run in the back by Madame Vera (Della Reese). All is well, until the the wrong people start to take notice of just how well they’re doing.
Enter Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner), a gangster who’s determined to share in their good fortune. After having his associate, Smalls, and his mistress, Dominique LaRue (Jasmine Guy) scout the club, he sends crooked cop, Sergeant Cantone (Danny Aiello) to threaten Ray into shutting down the club, unless he gets a cut. Having done this multiple times before to other club owners, Calhoune doesn’t realize just how big of a mistake he’s made.
Not one to give in to threats, Sugar decides to shut down the club rather than give in to extortion, but not before reverting to his gambling ways to secure the financial futures of his friends and family. Using the distraction of an upcoming boxing match, and strategically betting against his guy in order to confuse Calhoune into thinking the match is fixed, Ray makes a plan to rob Calhoune’s booking houses.
After sending Dominique to set up Quick, resulting in her death, Calhoune has Club Sugar Ray burned downed, but the wheels are already set in motion. Ray sends Sunshine (Lela Rochon) to seduce Calhoune’s bag man, Richie Vinto (Vic Polizos). In a stroke of genius, Ray masterminds the theft, destroying Calhoune’s club on fight night in retaliation for the arson at his own club, paying off his own crooked law enforcement officials, and scheming with Vera to ensure that Calhoune and his men never bother them again.
While Harlem Nights paints a very real picture of both life in Harlem at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, and the trials and tribulations of the Black business owner, this hilarious period comedy is filled with engaging dialogue and wild scenarios from start to finish. Although the film was (unfairly) nominated for and won the 10th Golden Raspberry Award for worst screenplay, time has revealed that this instant classic was and remains beloved. The unbeatable duo of Pryor and Murphy is a force that carries the film, and seeing their family of castaways and misfits rise above the odds, refuse to be intimidated, and work together to effectively, permanently deal with their oppressors is uplifting.
I give this one 4.25 stars