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

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Though critics would almost unanimously agree that Harlem Nights was a hot mess of a film, black folk absolutely love it. I personally, just saw it for the first time last night and I don’t understand what they missed. Sure it might not have been chock-full of Oscar worthy performances but it was a great story, hilarious dialogue between the characters and I’m sure you all have noticed that it was shot beautifully. It’s easily a cult classic. You know the movie, so let’s dig into the behind the scenes details.

Eddie’s Directorial Debut

After his success on “Saturday Night Live,” 48 Hours and Coming to AmericaEddie Murphy was Hollywood’s “it” guy. In an era where black Hollywood had directors like Spike Lee and Robert Townsend, people dubbed the increase of black films something like the beginning of a “new black renaissance.”  When Eddie heard that he said on his episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” that he thought: “Well Isht, I’ma direct something too.”

Check out Eddie talking about the film below:

What is it like to direct a hero?

It’s no surprise that Richard Pryor was a hero of Eddie Murphy’s– just like every other modern day black comic. So when Eddie came up with the script for what would eventually be Harlem Nights, he already knew that he wanted to cast Pryor in the film. For most of us it might be a bit weird to direct someone we’ve idolized for most of our lives, this is what Eddie had to say about it in his episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio:”

“It was daunting, being on a set directing a guy– the reason why you’re here is because of him. It was a little surreal but it was a great experience…”

Three Generations

One of the many reasons, black folk liked this film, when the mainstream didn’t, was because it included three generations of black comedians. Just like Eddie looked up to Richard Pryor, Pryor looked up to Redd Foxx, even working in Redd’s Los Angeles club when he was first starting out. So at 67, 49 and 28 the men were able to say that they are very similar but still unique in their approach, which is what helped to make their working relationship so successful. In the Jan 1990 issue of Ebony magazine, Eddie shared what this opportunity meant to him:

“This whole thing didn’t happen until we all got together and cooked this up,” Murphys says. “Hollywood wasn’t trying to hook us up. But I think it’s just historic that I get to work with these brothers. The privilege of working with Richard and Redd has been the greatest reward of my career.”


If you’ve seen the full, unedited version of this film, you know that there is more cussing than a little bit. In fact, according to IMDB, some variation of the f word is used 133 throughout the film. While the number is large, I’m honestly surprised it wasn’t more than that. Though, there was plenty of cussing to go around, there was one person on set, who probably wished there wasn’t so much of it. In that same Ebony interview, this is what Redd Foxx had to say:

“I wish he hadn’t gone to profanity,” [Redd Foxx] says. I had done enough of that to kick the door down so he could work anywhere in the world without it. Besides he’s a funny dude.”



Obviously, the fact that the location of the film shows up in the title is no accident. Harlem and its history is arguably another character in the film. So it was important that it be depicted accurately. It wasn’t just important to Eddie either. In a Moveline interview with production designer Larry Paull, Paull said that Eddie’s mother, Lillian, made sure that Harlem was depicted properly:

“Eddie Murphy’s mother, who was prowling the set, pulled Paull aside and told him how important it was to her that Harlem be presented as an attractive community. “Which it was,” says the production designer. “Strivers Row, in Harlem, is still one of the most beautiful streets in New York. Harlem didn’t really start to decay until after World War II.”


Where to shoot?

Harlem is so beautiful in fact, that the studio originally considered shooting on location. They eventually decided against it when they realized that placing Murphy and Pryor, two of Hollywood’s most famous black stars, in one of New York’s blackest neighborhoods might not be sure a good idea. Plus they felt it would have been easier to build a 1930’s set instead of transforming 1989 Harlem into what they needed. So they shot in Hollywood.

Where the story came from

Sugar Ray’s was actually a real bar owned by Eddie’s Uncle Ray in Brooklyn. In a video interview with Crazy Al Cayne TV, amidst some trash talking, Uncle Ray explained how he helped with the concept and what the movie did for him.

“I owned a bar in Brooklyn called Sugar Ray’s and I used to tell Eddie the stories about when I ran with the mafia that Donnie Brascoe and all of that. In three weeks, Eddie wrote that movie Harlem Nights. That movie was like real, what really happened back in those days. I’m proud to say that my nephew has immortalized me between the movies and all the people I’ve met in Hollywood. I think it’s the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to somebody who comes from the projects.”

Caused the first movie theater to have metal detectors

Unfortunately, during the movie opened to a bit of controversy. For whatever reason, in Michigan, a costumer decided to shoot inside the movie theater. He injured two people before he was killed by the police in the parking lot. After that, the “Americana 8” theater, where the shooting took place, became the first theater in the world to install metal detectors, patrons had to pass through in order to enter. It caused quite a controversy at the time, leading some to claim that the film advocated violence. Jasmine Guy, who played Dominique La Rue in the film, said racism is what led people to say that. She noted that other films that came out during that time, like Lethal Weapon had the same amount of violence but were not accused of advocating violence.


Eddie gets sued…again

In addition to dealing with the critics’ less than favorable opinions, an unnamed actress in the film also sued Eddie Murphy for $75 million for sexual harassment. Luckily, the suit never went anywhere. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time Eddie had been sued. After Coming to America was released, a writer came forward saying Murphy stole the idea from him. Fortunately for Eddie, the studio settled the case.

Harlem Nights and Life 

In the movie Life there was a fight scene with Eddie Murphy’s character, “Rayford GIbson.” After he gets hit once, Eddie says, “I know a b–ch named Della who hits harder than you,” referring to Della Reese’s character, “Vera,” a madame who fights Eddie in that notorious fight scene in the alleyway.

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.”

Whatever happened to that little boy?

Doesn’t this little boy look familiar? Well that’s because you’ve seen him in a black movie or three. After Harlem Nights, Desi Arnez Hines II, who plays a young Quick, went on to play in House Party in 1990 and then in Boyz N The Hood in 1991. After that he had minor roles in short films like The Intern, and City of Angels.

No word on what he’s been up to since then but apparently he attended college because his IMDB and Wiki page state that he’s a member of Iota Phi Theta Fraternity.

Here’s what he looks like these days.


The Love Scene

In an interview with Movieline, Jasmine Guy explained why she was so nervous about that love scene with Eddie.

“I was nervous shooting that love scene,” Jasmine admits. “It was established that there’d be no nudity before I accepted the role, but it was weird kissing somebody in front of all those people. I’ve never kissed anybody I didn’t know. I wanted to grab Eddie in the bathroom and say, ‘How many kids in your family, who was your girlfriend in high school, did you like her?’ I wanted this quick personal course on Eddie just to get to know him.”

She also went on to say that she would never take a role that would embarrass her family, so if she were ever presented with a part that was a bit risqué, she would consult– or at least let them know about it first.


Della Reese 

Later, in her career, Della Reese became known as the black woman on “Touched By An Angel,” so people began to associate her with Christian roles. (Though it wasn’t much of a stretch considering Della is an ordained minister.) In an interview with 5 Minutes For, the interviewer asked Della if her role in Harlem Nights conflicted with her spirituality. Here’s what she had to say:

I thank God everyday for that role in Harlem Nights. I come from that kind of environment. That character that I played. I know that woman. I grew up with her living down the street from me. No honey, Harlem Nights stretched my ability to act. God used it to show me that I can play any part He chooses to bless with me. It gave me a chance to meet people and show them a different side of me. I will always be grateful for Harlem Nights


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