The Uses of Richard Pryor

BAMCINEMATEK | FEBRUARY 8 – 13 & FEBRUARY 19 – 21, 2013

There are a few things that everybody knows about Richard Pryor: that he lit himself on fire in a suicide attempt while freebasing cocaine; that his stand-up revolutionized the form and altered the terms of American race relations; and that the movies he made were, for the most part, very bad.

Richard Pryor in Wattstax, directed by Mel Stuart.

“A Pryor Engagement,” BAMCinématek’s two-week, 18-film retrospective quarrels with this latter proposition. Drawing on the beloved concert films, Pryor’s few exceptional turns as an actor, a handful of movies in which he appears only briefly, and enough of the total dogs to keep things fair, the series makes a limited case for the virtues of Pryor’s filmography.

Pryor never found a way to use movies, as his mastery of language and gesture led him to use stand-up comedy, as an instrument to better understand himself and the mostly ugly world he inhabited, and rather than stop making them, he gave in and let the movies use him. The selection here does not assert otherwise, but it shows that the uses to which he was put are often more interesting than the obits and the old Comedy Central marathons would suggest.

The concert films remain the cinema’s most essential documents of his talents, though Live in Concert (1979) is the only one to have caught him in his prime. All three bear out that he was not only a profound writer and storyteller, but, in this context at least, a gifted actor. On stage he could capture anyone—and, drawing on his fecund anthropomorphic imagination, anything—in a few quick gestures and phrases, seizing on a few telling details and teasing them out into a complex pathos he could inhabit and luxuriate in, riffing his way to wisdom. On the screen, he most often painted in broader strokes, telegraphing his character’s basic motivations, and hoping his antic energy would take care of the rest.

Along with these now classic performances, BAM has turned up one of the few filmic records of Pryor’s years as a minor counterculture icon. Dynamite Chicken (released in 1971, but shot in ’69), is a delightful and batty piece of bad pop Godard whose groovy montage of arbitrarily chosen ’60s figures (from Al Goldstein to Shulamith Firestone, Malcolm X to Sha Na Na), and primitive stoner sketch comedy by the Ace Trucking Company (led by Fred Willard), is jury-rigged together by Pryor material, which he performs directly for the camera in an empty Manhattan lot. The more familiar document of this period, Mel Stuart’s Wattstax (1973), uses Pryor to similar ends, but more coherently. Staging an intimate club performance to give a throughline to Stuart’s beautiful footage of the eponymous music festival, it situates Pryor among Jesse Jackson, the Stax stable, and the ordinary people of Watts, recognizing him as one of the most imaginative articulators of post-civil rights black consciousness, ecstatic but still embattled.

Closing out the series’s foray into this era is another unmissable curio, Some Call It Loving (1973). An international art circuit hit directed by James B. Harris, the film renders the Sleeping Beauty story as something like an American giallo film, minus the violence, in which Pryor inexplicably turns up as the wino best friend of the adrift rich kid protagonist played by future soft porn emperor Zalman King.

Pryor began making films in earnest in the early ’70s, before releasing the Warner Bros. records that would make him a household name. He hoped that Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Sidney J. Furie’s solemn and stiff Billie Holiday biopic, would be his breakout, and while he continued to regard it as one of his best performances, he adds little more than liveliness to his role as the tragic Piano Man. Critics were receptive to his performance, but the studios feared his defiant independence and his already notorious personal excesses. He was famously passed up for the character he wrote in Blazing Saddles (1974) after the studio refused to insure him. He stayed mostly relegated to race films, moving from blaxploitation to lower-middlebrow fare like John Badham’s Negro Leagues comedy The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976).

Pryor was frequently criticized in this era for playing weak, buffoonish characters. Though he frequently exposed his own fear and cowardice in his stage act, as an actor he was unable to summon the dynamic interplay between vicious self-loathing and furious pride, righteous anger and wounded empathy that animated his standup material, and his screen appearances could sometimes resemble the Stepin Fetchit stereotypes that his comedy had exploded. He had little reason to put this kind of effort into his other appearances as Hollywood kept leading him down the same dead ends to which it had consigned other black performers. Only in Blue Collar (1978), as an auto worker backed into selling out his union buddies, did he manage to summon all of the contradictions he embodied onstage. With Michael Schultz, whose Cooley High (1975) had made him one of the most successful black directors of the era, Pryor found a way to transcend this material. A minor poet of ’70s languor, Schultz had a shaggy directorial style that was a perfect match for a comedian whose impressionistic storytelling had done away with the primacy of the punchline.

They got off to a rocky start. Pryor is, along with George Carlin, one of the worst things about their first project together, Car Wash (1976), a goofy disco musical that, like all the best disco, transposes the dreary landscapes of lower-middle-class American life into the realm of shimmering sensuous fantasy. Coked-up and vacant, Pryor smiles his way through his five minutes on screen as “Daddy Rich,” a sleazy prosperity gospel preacher—trying to hustle the audience as nakedly as his character hustles his marks. Eventually Pryor seems to have realized that Schultz was limning the themes and aesthetics of a black working class sensibility in which he was at home, and the director became as steady a collaborator as Gene Wilder, and a more fruitful one, chauffeuring Pryor in his best star vehicles. In Which Way Is Up? (1977), a riff on The Seduction of Mimi, Pryor takes on multiple roles, centrally a hapless laborer who finds himself caught in the middle of a vicious battle between management and a union lead by a Cesar Chavez-like figure. Although sharply directed, and occasionally very funny, it is finally too incoherent to land the social critique it intimates.

Bustin’ Loose (1981), their final film together, is a Reagan-era horror story stretched into the shape of a Carter-era road movie. The production bookended Pryor’s self-immolation, with Schultz afterwards taking over from credited director Oz Scott and reshooting most of the film. Its plot finds con man Pryor backed into driving a bus of special needs children, who have been benignly kidnapped by their teacher (Cecily Tyson), across the country after the city budget cuts close her school. By turns outrageously offensive, socially astute, and uproariously funny, it is the film that comes closest to capturing the dynamics of Pryor’s stand-up.

After the success of the concert films, and Pryor’s show-stealing entrance into the third act of Silver Streak (1976), he became a steady box office draw, free to pick and choose among projects. He opted for a decreasingly rewarding series of collaborations with Wilder, and toothless broad comedies whose commercial success bankrolled his addictions—of which only Brewster’s Millions (1985), an unaccountably laughless graveyard of talent that also includes headstones for co-star John Candy and director Walter Hill, BAM has refused to spare us. Now given a wider range of options, his acting career became one more victim of the darkness that had enveloped his personal life.

Even after cleaning up, and taking complete creative control by founding his own production company, he couldn’t channel his brilliance into filmmaking. Jo-Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986), which he directed and produced through his own company, is a mawkish self-help exercise masquerading as warts-and-all autobiography, achieving none of the self-lacerating anguish of his comedy, or even the funny-sad, wearied self-reflection of his 1995 memoir, Pryor Convictions.

Pryor’s career was slowed, and then finally halted, by multiple sclerosis, which eventually confined him to a wheelchair. He made his final appearance in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, now just another Lynchian gargoyle plucked from life to fill out the margins of the film’s funhouse mirror Los Angeles. The jokes that other people made about Richard Pryor were always different than the ones he made about himself.



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Colin Beckett

COLIN BECKETT lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Moving Image Source, BOMB, Cineaste, and Idiom.