Abe Beame has never seen Charlie Murphy’s couch.
Several years ago, I started an ambitious project to write about every Eddie Murphy film ever made. I started with a look at the 48 HRS series and followed with a rundown of the Beverly Hills Cop trilogy. And then I stopped. I didn’t stop due to laziness or lack of inspiration (or at least not entirely because of that), I stopped because it was time to unpack Delirious and Raw, Murphy’s two monumental, deeply problematic, star making stand up films from the 80s and I had no clue how to intelligently address them and the many, many issues they raise.
Then a while back I re-watched Boomerang, one of Eddie’s treasures that came towards the backend of his peak and in the grand scheme of black-produced films, one of the most important movies ever made, full stop. What I realized as I watched is Delirious and Raw serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone for the noble intentions and troubled sexual politics that produced Boomerang. So much of Eddie’s philosophy espoused in his 80s standup pieces comes to bear in the plot and action of the 90s romantic comedy — so much that you can draw a straight line through the three films and interrogate Eddie’s corrupt logic in a way that limits having to unspool entire histories of gender theory, social change and base moralizing as a critic. So, welcome back to The Eddie Murphy project. It’s been a long time, and I probably should’ve left you, but hopefully this lens finally gives me away to discuss these really complicated and compelling films without getting this website censured by the government.
By 1983, when Delirious was released on HBO, Eddie Murphy was the biggest star on television as the anchor of a new SNL generation, an unlikely action star with 48 Hours (which stablished the buddy cop model), and two weeks after Delirious dropped, Murphy would star alongside Dan Aykroyd in John Landis’ Trading Places, a brilliant satire and generational comedy that’s still my favorite film of his. He was also 22 years old. Delirious was the first indication that Murphy was not content to limit himself as a not ready for prime time player, or even a traditional studio system movie star. He had the ambition, and the talent, to launch himself as an iconic one name celebrity powerhouse with total control over his career.
Eddie’s own personal God Richard Pryor is the Abraham of the genre of stand-up features released in theaters. Of the top 25 highest grossing stand up films of all time, Pryor is responsible for two, one of which remains at #3 and they’re also the oldest films on the list. Murphy idolized Pryor so it isn’t so surprising he followed suit. Today, Raw is still the highest grossing concert/performance film of all time.
The films had a seismic impact. Eddie took the things we loved about standup and sketch in the work of Pryor and yes, Cosby, and blew them out. While his forebears are probably more influential within the grand history of the medium, Eddie is by far the most talented, and it electrified his take on the form. By my count, here is a list of all the masterful impressions Murphy unleashes over the course of his two specials: Mr. T, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, Michael Jackson, Teddy Pendergrass, Elvis Presley, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, Desi Arnaz, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Murphy’s standup is nearly a Vaudeville act. Observational toilet humor overstuffed with impression and song, but it’s incredibly poised: confident, brilliantly considered and perfectly delivered.
And it was fearless. This wasn’t Cosby and his assimilationist niceties. Murphy was always very aware of his status as a black man in Reagan’s America, and the sexual repercussions of that identity, what he was saying and why it was important for him to talk his shit. Delirious finds Murphy leading the crowd in heckling Reaganomics and praising Jesse Jackson and Harold Washington. How they remade the cultural landscape and what both men meant to impoverished communities of color at the time. This sort of unapologetic, context rich blackness was also groundbreaking for a standup with his platform as America’s sweetheart.
But following the Pryor model went beyond careerist. Murphy followed Pryor stylistically and his interpretation is crucial. Richard was perhaps the first and definitely the most successful confessional comedian. He went places no one else would dare at the time on mic and was beloved for it. This is important to note because what Murphy took from Pryor was that same aura of truth telling.
The emphasis is placed there because as we will soon discuss, Murphy’s idea of truthfulness is too often provocation, a desire to shock with vulgarity rather than dig into something honest, profound and universal. The audience gets a sense for what he may feel and believe, but not in the sense that he was relatable and vulnerable as Pryor was at his very best, rather he comes off as unintentionally comically flamboyant and often desperate to assert his transparent masculinity.
Let’s not mince words: Delirious and Raw are two of the most troubled pieces of foundational post-modern culture that we haven’t yet canceled (with Boomerang not far behind). It is a literal crisis of intersectionality. They’re essential pieces of very necessary assertions of black masculinity that are so toxic they’re nearly impossible to enjoy in retrospect. Both specials open with virulent, simply unfunny homophobia. The guy talk in Boomerang opens with transphobia.
Raw and Delirious were delivered at the peak of the AIDS epidemic and gay panic. It’s inexcusable but very aligned with Murphy’s cartoonish hyper masculine projection.
Murphy exhibits his cock frequently in the specials, claiming he’s reached his “sexual prime” at 22. The sophomoric chest thumping as Murphy openly brags about sexual prowess is a recurring theme. Murphy, all swagger and sneer, let’s you know he’s fucking (A LOT) with a large dick and is really good at it in the least sexy, schoolyard fashion. This would continue with Boomerang as Marcus Graham is cemented early on as hot shit at his marketing company. We’re given several suggestions explicitly by the film that he’s slept with every woman in the office.
At one point in Raw, Murphy explains his desire to settle down as an escape from venereal disease. Which begs the question, what does Eddie Murphy the standup want in an ideal partner? Well, a mate, as he clearly has no interest in romantic partnership. His Madonna/Whore complex doesn’t even require a deep reading. His perfect woman is a virginal physical specimen and he never gives you the impression that he’s ever loved any woman as much as his mother’s homemade hamburgers.
Much of his standup, particularly Raw, is concerned with clout and stature, how to deal with fame and how it affects your ability to develop relationships romantically. In retrospect, his takes now play as grotesque. Hilarious and well crafted, but grotesque. The Johnny Carson bit is particularly telling. Inherent in his critique of celebrity divorce settlements is a misogyny completely ignoring the partnership of marriage, placing a monetary value on sexual gratification and viewing that gratification as the less famous partner’s only contribution to the relationship. There’s a dark cynicism to Murphy’s view of the female sex, and sex in general as transactional and primarily concerned with power dynamics.
He views himself as a target for money hungry, predatory social climbers. “Winning” means converting a woman’s sexual desire into complete and total emotional commitment, really surrender, the ultimate ridiculous phallic fantasy. In Murphy’s view, monogamy is a shell game. Infidelity is a biological imperative. Men have to conquer women. It’s textbook nauseating pickup artist caveman shit. At the center of it all is a paradoxical desire for a manic pixie steak eater. Throughout Raw, Murphy expresses admiration for a friend’s imagined Japanese subservient spouse, before railing against timid “salad eating bitches”, before castigating American culture, with its shallow materialism, which he also flaunts, for “infusing” women with agency as he views it in the basic demand for respect and equality in a relationship. It’s a Gordian Knot of hypocrisy and backwards, impossible expectations.
Boomerang is complicated because it wants to show a maturity and level of self deprecation. The film opens with the sound of a dog panting, the intro of Funkadelic’s “Atomic Dog”. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of Murphy’s misogyny and the film attempts a deconstruction and interrogation of the Murphy persona. But Boomerang wants to have its cake and eat it too. It openly castigates Murphy for his retro approach to love and sex. He’s a borderline sociopathic pickup artist whose entire drive in his personal life is conquering women. He thrives on performance and insincerity. But we are meant to believe at the bottom of his cynicism lies a noble romantic quest for “the perfect woman”, at least as he perceives it, while also acknowledging how usurious, vapid and hurtful he’s been towards his victims. Finally, it praises, glorifies and ultimately forgives Marcus Graham for his abominable behavior.
Consider the dichotomy between Robin Givens’ Jacqueline Boyer and Halle Berry’s Angela Lewis. It’s Murphy’s fever dream. While Murphy didn’t write the physical screenplay, he developed the story and these two women stand in as archetypes that recur throughout his standup. On the page Jacqueline is a maneater. She’s brilliant, gorgeous, independent and career oriented, which means she doesn’t shower Marcus with the attention he’s accustomed to, causing him to become vulnerable and clingy, showing “weakness” and ultimately turning her off.
Angela is presented as her counterpart. She is less flashy and ambitious than Angela, a nice and pure girl next door. She is content in her subordinate position and dedicated to her “real” extracurricular passion, teaching art to underprivileged youth. The real poison of the film is derived from Marcus’ rebound fling with Angela. The film instructs us that Marcus regained his mojo by conquering Jacqueline’s close friend and co-worker, making her jealous by his assertion of manhood. We are to believe Marcus breaks his cycle of misogyny but it’s only after dogging out Angela, winning back Jacqueline, dumping Jacqueline, serving bullshit penance, returning to Angela (who has suddenly become career-oriented and successful) victorious, then of course she takes him back. The behavior the film wants to critique Murphy for ultimately rewards him for reverting to that same behavior. It’s propaganda for the cliche that hurt people hurt people but has little to contribute to that platitude. It’s also very much in line with Eddie Murphy’s troglodyte perspective on romantic relationships.
But it’s tempting to mount a defense for Murphy’s defiant, outspoken, even virulent sexuality. In the early 90s, there was only one black entertainer who could’ve made Boomerang. Eddie Murphy was the most famous and powerful person in Hollywood at the time, and he was willing to cash in his chips and make an incredibly risky gamble on a subject matter devoid of color. For too long leading up to moments like Delirious, black sexuality was taboo, a stigma rather than a celebration. Consider buttoned up, tight-lipped Sydney Poitier, all grim dignity even when playing a love interest in a blazer and starched collar. Now consider Murphy’s wardrobes, leather suits of armor while he casually boasts about his sexual acuity and dick size, claiming the stereotypes used for generations to justify black oppression and death as a form of superiority.
While it’s incredibly narcissistic, the positioning of Marcus Graham as an elite marketing exec in Boomerang is a flex with purpose. This was a demand that black men can and should be portrayed as affluent, brilliant, talented and powerful. Here is a list of Murphy’s previous roles, which he signed onto continually throughout the 80s as his power and clout grew: A con turned detective in 48 Hours, a grifter in Trading Places, a blue collar detective in Beverly Hills Cop, a social worker on a quest in The Golden Child and a schticky African Prince in Coming to America. This was what was offered to a black actor at the pinnacle of the industry. Very little speaking to an empowered contemporary black American experience.
No less an undeniable sex symbol than Denzel Washington had largely been sexless in his body of work up to this point, with the lone exception of Mo Betta Blues two years earlier, which of course came out of the Spike Lee Universe, one of the few places blackness was allowed to live without apology for decades and even then, came in a more indie, underground form that didn’t have the same sort of mainstream, wide release, 100 million dollar plus gross potential that Boomerang realized. This was the chasm Murphy filled, the bell he answered.
And then there’s the intelligence, the craft behind these works and the very specific intentional representation behind their production. Raw was produced by a young Keenan Ivory Wayans and directed by Robert Townsend. Boomerang is directed by Reginald Hudlin, a foundational music video director who got his start in film directing House Party and Bebe’s Kids, went on to produce Tarantino’s Django Unchained and actually ran BET for a time in the aughts. The costuming of the film is iconic. It featured an all time great soundtrack of classic baby makers by black artists. Obviously, this was without precedence for a mainstream rom-com.
There’s a murderer’s row of black comedic talent: Murphy, Chris Rock, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Martin Lawrence, David Allen Grier, John Witherspoon and Eartha Kitt. It was a nearly all black cast that opened the doors for several young talents and paid homage to the modern history of great, unsung black actors. Robin Givens is smart, incisive, sexy and powerful as she jumps off the screen and totally works as a self possessed department head, an incredible role for a woman of color in 1992. Berry’s Angela Lewis teaches Romare Bearden to children of color attending underfunded schools that can’t afford art programs. It’s a formula for the future of black romantic comedy, its DNA is as intrinsic to the form as Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally. Only you would never see a Nora Ephron penned scenario where Harry is embarrassed because his mother brings a pot of chitterlings to dinner with a paramour. All of this matters.
How is history to judge Eddie Murphy? What do we make of a man who was no better than the moment he lived through (and in some senses much worse) as it pertained to the way he discussed and treated women and gay men, but a pioneer in how black people were portrayed in film, what they were allowed to do, and who they were allowed to be? It is so difficult looking back in 2019 with any sort of critical lens and attempting to reconcile his importance as a black man claiming, really demanding his sexuality and his utter unapologetic and completely unacceptable toxic masculinity. Sadly, you read all this to discover I don’t really have any answers to this subjective, impossible question. I’ve merely left the case for the prosecution and defense above. But I’ll leave you with this.
On August 17th, 1983, Eddie Murphy closes Delirious with an anecdote about Marian Anderson. She was a black opera singer in the 1950s who couldn’t perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., the venue where Eddie was performing that night, because it was segregated. Murphy reflects, “And here we are, not even fifty years later, a 22 year old black man on this stage getting paid to hold his dick.”