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Nineteen-thirties Harlem is a state of mind, a place where forbidden fantasies intersect: for whites it's the promise of illicit pleasure, for blacks the promise of illicit power, and for first-time director (writer-executive producer-star) Eddie Murphy it offers an opportunity to depict
his own peculiar idea of the hip and the cool. Murphy is Quick, an orphan who has become the ward and partner of Sugar Ray (Richard Pryor), whose onetime seedy after-hours joint is now a fashionable nightclub. Mobster club-owner Bugsy Calhoune (Michael Lerner) doesn't like competition, so he
attempts to put the squeeze on Club Sugar Ray, first by having a corrupt cop (Danny Aiello) lean on Quick and Sugar Ray, and then by sending his own seductive moll (Jasmine Guy) on a nefarious mission. Not surprisingly, the violence escalates until Quick and Sugar Ray turn the tables on Calhoune.
If HARLEM NIGHTS isn't the embarrassing vanity production it might have been, there's still not a lot to be said for it. All is subservient to Murphy's ego; everything becomes a lavish toy for him, from women in slinky dresses, to fancy cars and the ambiguous, exploitable legend of Harlem itself.
Although the cast is varied and substantial, ranging from raw ingenues (Guy) to dues-paying veterans (Redd Foxx), Murphy's script doesn't give anyone much to work with. In the end, there's no soul to be had in this city of appearances. The costume design received an Oscar nomination.