Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “Harlem Nights”

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Highs and Lows

Though the movie was a flop critically, there was one area that caught the attention of both the audience and the Academy, the costumes. Joe I. Thompkins was nominated for an Academy Award for best costume design. In an interview with the American Society of Cinematographers, Woody Omens, the film’s cinematographer, who also worked with Eddie on Coming To America and Boomerang, explained how he approached costuming:

“Most of the story took place in Harlem in 1938, and more recent movies set in that period tend to look like faded photographs,” notes Omens. “That’s because our visual memory is based on a visual cliché, sepia-toned images we associate with photo albums and old picture books. We searched bookstores, libraries and archives for clues about what Harlem was like during the late 1930s. One of the best sources we found was Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto [by Gilbert Osofsky]. I originally thought we should shoot in black-and-white, but after researching, I decided to make black skin tones the most essential color in the film and use a limited palette. That would set off and highlight the beautiful skin tones of our cast, which was mostly black. I didn’t know what Eddie and Larry Paull and Joe Tompkins would think about this, so I created a color chart to demonstrate my idea. After seeing it, they supported the idea, and it became the basis for the look of the entire picture. In that environment, a few very strong color accents seemed to jump off the screen, but most importantly, the skin tones of the actors dominated each scene.”

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