The Liberator Magazine 5.1 #14, 2006
(artwork: Joshua Haycraft)
As I rode with my husband to the store on Saturday, December 10th, I found myself tearing up upon hearing the news of Richard Pryor’s death. Perhaps "death" isn't the right word to use. Because anyone you can think of and instantly smile about is surely alive.
As bizarre as it may sound, Richard Pryor was a symbol of my childhood. He was connected to my earliest memories--an absentee godparent, of sorts. Unlike my peers who were sneaking to listen to his albums, I was always allowed to listen and I often lost track of time staring at the different characters on the album cover of the "Bicentennial Nigger." In his characters, I recognized the kind of man I would eventually want: someone with a heart and someone who was truthful. I knew Richard Pryor was a slave to the truth and truly appreciated it. Witnessing someone tell the truth about themselves and their experiences forces us to recognize our own truth. And of course we all know what the truth does.
This issue, my job was to watch and rate several Richard Pryor movies. What a pleasure. Like many topics, this is a column that I have been meaning to write for a long time and just never got around to it. Though I wish that it was not Richard Pryor’s transition that prompted me to revisit these movies, I am thankful, just the same, for the opportunity to do so.
Now, quick! List three Richard Pryor movies. Now list ten. If you can do that, then list the first twenty that pop into your head. Well, if you’ve listed twenty, then you have still listed just half of the movies he’s been in. So, of those forty-plus movies here are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most over the years: "Car Wash," "The Wiz," "Silver Streak," "Jojo Dancer Your Life is Calling," "Bustin’ Loose," "Which Way Is Up?," "Greased Lightening," "Stir Crazy," "Uptown Saturday Night" and "Richard Pryor Live in Concert." I highly recommend all of these movies, many of which are undeniably classics. However, my two absolute favorites are "Which Way is Up?" and "Greased Lightening," both of which premiered in 1977 and were directed by Michael Shultz.
The first to debut was "Greased Lightening" which is based on the true story of Wendell Scott, the first African American stock car racing champion in America. Pryor’s performance is poignant in this tenderly made movie. Here we witness the mark of a genius, as Richard is not looking for the laugh but, instead, teaching us about persevering, following our dreams, and the enduring nature of love. Watching the chemistry that he and Pam Grier (who plays opposite Pryor) share as they navigate their way through the years makes you just want to hug your man or woman and say, “I love and support you.” From the “googoo” eyes he makes at Grier’s character when he first meets her, to his walk as an old man, Pryor proves that he can act and carry a movie, even in a serious role. Michael Shultz (director of "Cooley High" and "Car Wash" as well) takes his time with this story, yet still keeps us glued and wondering what’s going to happen next--all the way to the nail biting ending. Also pay close attention to the soundtrack as you are watching this film, the lyrics of the songs are cinematic in and of themselves.
Tied in first place for the best Richard Pryor movie is "Which Way Is Up?" which was adapted from an Italian movie, "The Seduction of Mimi" (and will be reviewed in a later column). Here, Pryor plays a man struggling to do just that--be a man. Leroy is a regular guy, who inadvertently gets "caught up" and each step he takes to free himself leaves him deeper in muck. While his performance will have you crying from laughter, it’s still difficult to watch him struggle so much for so little reward. Besides playing Leroy, Pryor also plays Leroy’s father and the town minister distinctly and brilliantly.
What makes this movie so good is Pryor's ability to be so unapologetically honest about who his character is all the way to the last scene--one of the baddest final scenes in cinematic history. This honesty is the hallmark of Pryor's performing style in his impressive body of work.
During his time here, Richard Pryor experienced everything from the bizarre to the sublime, endured incredible hardships and accomplished much more than others can accomplish in five lifetimes. His work has left an indelible mark on the human experience and for that. we are grateful. Thank You, Richard Pryor.
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