Commentary Magazine


Black Comedy

Are we witnessing one of Thomas Sowell’s examples of “ethnic succession” in American comedy today? It is hard to believe, given the personalities of the individual performers and the traits of the ethnic groups in question. But the most successful new movie comedy team by a huge margin is Cheech and Chong, who refer to themselves as “your typical Chinese-Mexican comedy team,” and the most brilliant new solo performer is a black, Richard Pryor. They are smart, fast, funny. They are attracting giant audiences, and not vulgar audiences either. While Woody Allen was off trying to be, sadly, Ingmar Bergman (Interiors), Federico Fellini (Stardust Memories), and Tennessee Williams (The Naked Light Bulb), they have come streaking up on the outside and captured the market.

The size of the phenomenon is best indicated by comparing the commercial impact of the Woody Allen and the Cheech and Chong movies. Woody Allen comedies used to be very cheap to make. They never finished in the really big money, but they were unusually dependable. With the exception of one close call (Love and Death), they all turned a handsome profit. Allen’s most successful movie to date was Manhattan in 1979, when for one heady month a Woody Allen movie led the field in the entire country. By the time the returns were in at the end of the year, however, Manhattan had sunk to 19. (Stardust Memories, at $26 million an expensive fiasco, only reached 80.) Cheech and Chong movies are even cheaper to make than the old Woody Allen movies. The team has done three films—Up in Smoke, Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, and Nice Dreams—and ended up in about the top dozen every time. Their first picture topped Burt Reynolds; their second picture topped Robert Redford; their third topped Paul Newman. Hollywood is staggering; slovenly little cheapies that bring out mobs like James Bond?

There is nothing obscure about the novelty of Cheech and Chong’s material. They are the comics of dope. What booze was to W.C. Fields, narcotics are to Cheech and Chong. Before W. C. Fields, of course, alcohol had been around for a long time. Every comedian—every actor—could do a drunk routine. On the other hand, narcotics, comedically speaking, were brand new, with exciting new oddities of social behavior just waiting to be parodied by entertainers of sufficient wit and talent. For a long time Cheech and Chong were too hot for the movies or even late-night television to handle. The country attentively followed the adventures of Saturday Night Live‘s Not Ready for Prime Time Players (very few of whose alumni, notably Bill Murray and the late John Belushi, were to become major film stars). But Cheech and Chong were deemed not ready—not only for prime time, but for any kind of television. Only the record industry would touch them. Platinum record followed platinum record, finally Paramount Pictures took a flyer, and the studios haven’t stopped counting the money.

Why the comics of dope should be a Los Angeles Chicano and a half-Chinese Canadian from Vancouver is not without its note of mystery, although it does somehow seem appropriate that their chosen stamping ground is the area of Los Angeles. (In the opening scene of their last film they are selling marijuana from an ice-cream van near the beach in Santa Monica.) Properly speaking, their material is not heavily “ethnic,” but Cheech being a Chicano does make a link between the affluent world of the area’s “West Side” (Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood, Westwood, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades) and the “low-riders” of East Los Angeles—the boue (primeval mud) for which the druggies of the West Side perhaps feel a nostalgic Both Cheech and Chong personally, it might be worth noting, live perfectly quiet lives.

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Richard Pryor’s success has also been very great. Stir Crazy, in which he co-starred with Gene Wilder, was the third biggest moneymaker of 1981, behind Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II, while his latest one-man “concert” movie, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, took in $8 million in its first three days, more money than Missing made in a month, than Diane Keaton’s Shoot the Moon in two months. Given their talents and their box-office power, both Cheech and Chong and Pryor (at least until recently in the latter case) have been decidedly under-reported in the prestige press compared to Woody Allen, for example, who has long been its darling. It may be that the concentration of a large Jewish population in New York, center of the country’s communications industry, has something to do with this. But it is also quite obvious that Allen, despite his often repeated declarations of disdain for intellectuals and of admiration for athletes, craves the approval of the intellectual community desperately. You can see it in his material (with his by now thoroughly tired references to Freud and Kierkegaard), his pathetic aping of Bergman and Fellini, his appearances at vernissages at the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art and such events as an homage to Martha Graham, and even where he eats—which is every night at Elaine’s, not known as a hangout for wide receivers for the New York Jets. And it has worked. Up until he abandoned comedy for lower things (he will soon be back), Woody Allen was the New York para-intellectual world’s favorite comic. And he has just recently even hit Paris, where l’humeur juive is positively the latest thing.

But if Woody Allen has assiduously sought the approval of the New York “intellectual” set, Cheech, Chong, and Richard Pryor—who have spent most of their time in the land of the orange blossom—have not. This has not stopped them from attaining great prestige in the entertainment world, particularly Pryor, who is a kind of black comedian we have never had before.

In his private life, Richard Pryor has been what he himself would once have called “one crazy nigger.” In fact, although he has sworn to give up using that term of racial abuse, his biggest, huge-selling platinum record was named, no doubt by himself, That Nigger’s Crazy.

Born in 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, he is the son, he has often said, of a prostitute. If untrue, this is not everyone’s notion of snob appeal. As a result of what his lawyer called a “syndrome of irresponsibility,” he has been convicted of assaulting a motel desk clerk (who was awarded $75,000 in damages), of failure to file income tax (he was fined and spent ten days in jail), not to mention possession of marijuana. He has had numerous wives, “four, five, six . . . eight, I don’t remember,” and during a fight with one of them on New Year’s Day 1978, he shot a Buick full of holes with a .357 Magnum. He has set a girlfriend’s mink coat on fire, gotten into fist fights with co-stars Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel on the set of Blue Collar, stabbed a fellow soldier while serving with a U.S. airborne division in Germany, and has been involved in numerous other legal difficulties and lawsuits, has sued and been sued, for child support among other things (he has four children). The Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas dismissed him in the middle of an engagement in 1967 for obscenities he allegedly directed at the audience.

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But the most spectacular event in what was already a highly erratic life occurred in June 1980, when, in a freak drug- or alcohol-related accident, Pryor almost burned himself to death. There is some controversy as to the accident’s circumstances. Pryor announced he was suing his former business manager for spreading a report that he was burned in an explosion while free-basing cocaine. (“Freebasing” is the process of refining street cocaine, sometimes with ether, to produce the pure “freebase,” which is then smoked in a pipe. The smoking is also called “freebasing.”) Pryor openly admits, however, that he was once a heavy cocaine user, and drank a fifth of liquor a day. He also told Ebony magazine that he had been “freebasing” for three days before the accident. But he had run out of cocaine, he said, and switched to “151-proof rum,” and when he tried to light a cigarette with a butane lighter the rum caught on fire.

The genteel nicety that distinguishes catching on fire while free-basing cocaine from catching on fire from 151-proof rum after three days of freebasing cocaine was further confused when he used the whole freebasing incident as material for perhaps one quarter of his new film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. “Ten million people freebasin’ in this country,” he cries in exasperation. “Who ever heard anybody burnin’ up! Why me?” What his lawyers think of this, I have no idea.

But Richard Pryor is clearly a far more complex person than his wild living would suggest. Strangely, he has always considered himself religious. “I was meant to be Catholic,” he said to one reporter, and told another, “I see God in the streets. He is in me and around me.” On the most terrifying night of his life, as he raced down the street on which he lived in Los Angeles, his upper body covered with third-degree burns, in agony, crazed, he was heard to cry, “There’s some good in me!” and to appeal to someone not to let him die. “There’s no doubt about it,” said an observer. “He was talking to God.” And he continued to talk to God through six weeks at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital Burn Center, where, although it was a very close call (doctors gave him only one chance in three of surviving), the staff, his friends, and perhaps God pulled him through. “It took me all this time to find out it was okay to be me,” he said recently. “I was given another chance at life.”

Not entirely unpredictably, he has been rushing around doing good deeds. Last summer he donated $200,000 and served as peacemaker in attempts to bring an end to feuds among 30 youth gangs in black districts of Los Angeles, and gave $50,000 to charities in his home town of Peoria for people “regardless of race, creed, or color,” with a portion set aside to fight drug abuse. He has denounced drugs vehemently and gone to live in a one-bedroom home in Maui with a commanding view of the Hawaiian coastline. “When I first saw this place again, I cried,” he says. “I thanked God for letting me live to see it.”

If all this seems too much like a caricature of the reformed sinner, as if Richard Pryor were going to devote his life henceforth to good works and to God, I can only say that he doesn’t seem to be showing Him his comedy material. At least he hasn’t been showing it to any of His earthly representatives. For it is more foul-mouthed and blasphemous than ever. Every man, I suppose, serves God in his own way.

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If Richard Pryor has been disreputable in life, there have been disreputable elements in his career as well. A distinguished black jazz musician who played with Pryor many years ago remembers him even then as having “the dirtiest mouth in show business.” When he got out of the U.S. Army, where he appeared in amateur shows, Pryor began to play small clubs in Peoria, East Saint Louis, and Buffalo. In 1963, the success of the black comedian Bill Cosby tempted him to try New York. In Greenwich Village and the Catskills he in time became known as “the black Lenny Bruce,” for, somewhat ironically, the one thing he was destined never to become was another Bill Cosby. As his fame grew in the mid-60’s, a member of the white show-business establishment actually advised Pryor in so many words to be “more like Bill Cosby,” meaning “the kind of colored guy we’d like to have over to our house,” but this was an option that never seemed open to Pryor.

It should be remembered that both Cosby and Dick Gregory were black men of a completely different sort from Pryor, psychologically as well as socially. Both had been to college. Both were star athletes. Cosby had such a high IQ that he was placed in a school for gifted children, and later played halfback on the Temple University football team. No one who qualifies for a school for gifted children and could have played professional football for the Green Bay Packers can be under the illusion that he is an inferior person. When Cosby and Gregory met the white man, they met him on his own terms.

It is interesting that neither of them—each departing in his own direction—remained “black comedians.” In 1963, just as Pryor was leaving for New York inspired by Cosby’s success, Cosby himself completely dropped all racial material from his performances, and, two years later, in I Spy, he became the first black to co-star (with Robert Culp) in a weekly dramatic television series—a series in which the fact that he was black played no part at all, at least in the plot. As for Gregory, although he certainly remained “black,” he gave up being a comedian entirely, fasting, marching, protesting, devoting himself to radical politics.

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While Dick Gregory was fasting ascetically, Richard Pryor, who dropped out of school at fourteen, became an ever-heavier user of cocaine. “Aw, man, like I bought Peru, you know?” Three years after being dismissed by the Aladdin in Las Vegas for obscenity, and given another chance at the same Aladdin in 1970, trying to restrain his language, Pryor suddenly “went crazy” and stormed off the stage in mid-act. A “street nigger” he was born, it seemed (the expression is his own), and a “street nigger” he would die. He would not meet the white man on the white man’s terms.

For a time it looked as if Richard Pryor might lose in this test of wills. When he returned to Hollywood, where he had made his first film in 1967 with Sid Caesar, he was confined for some years to what were then called “black-exploitation” movies—which is to say movies destined for an almost completely black audience. And when the bottom dropped out of black-exploitation in the mid-70’s, he was left with only records, “concert” performances (heavily attended by blacks), and odd appearances on television (as a guest star with Lily Tomlin and Flip Wilson). He even wrote scripts for television’s Sanford and Son. But the times were changing. Many of the shifts in mores popularly attributed to the 60’s actually took place in the 70’s, and a change in the attitude toward Richard Pryor was one of them.

In 1970 Richard Pryor was not considered acceptable entertainment for a white audience, but by 1976 he was. In that year he was offered a starring role in his first film intended for white or mixed audiences in almost a decade. Silver Streak, with Gene Wilder as co-star, was a great financial success, and Pryor has never looked back, reigning for the last five or six years as the world’s leading black entertainer.

Interestingly, now that white society has accepted him, Pryor has adopted an at least partly conciliating attitude toward white society, as we shall soon see. Whether this is a simple gesture of reciprocity, or prudent calculation, or the result of some long-delayed maturity, or even because Richard Pryor has literally “been through the fire” and heard God’s voice, it would be hard to know.

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As with Cheech and Chong, Pryor’s success on records (That Nigger’s Crazy, Is It Something I Said?, Bicentennial Nigger—all three won Grammies) played a large role in the turnaround. The markets for the huge U.S. record industry and for Hollywood movies overlap heavily. White people were buying Richard Pryor records. And the movie producers took it from there. Pryor has been vindicated in more than the mountain-coming-to-Muhammad sense in that audiences are getting a rarer and funnier Richard Pryor than they would have gotten if he had accepted the advice of his well-wishers in Las Vegas in the mid-60’s. “I was a robot,” he now says of his early efforts. “Beep. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Sands Hotel. The maids here are funny. Beep.” And really, the prime Richard Pryor, in my view the unique Richard Pryor, is the one we get when he plays in solo performance as himself.

One of the conspicuous distinctions among even great comic actors is that some of them (the late Peter Sellers was an example) feel awkward and self-conscious when called upon to appear in their own personae and need to be assigned a “character” (not themselves) to be at their best. Pryor is the opposite. When playing comic roles in his movie comedies with Gene Wilder, he is skillful, capable, funny. At serious moments, like so many great comic actors before him, he tends to go sentimental. But when he is “himself” (although there is plainly much artistic license) there is none of that.

As a solo performer, Pryor has done all America’s best “gigs”—sold-out performances to enthusiastic houses at the Kennedy Center in Washington, Lincoln Center in New York, the Shubert in Los Angeles. His first opportunity to be himself on film was in 1972 in Wattstax, the movie version of the concert staged in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by Stax Records for the benefit of the black community of Watts. Pryor did monologues that linked together the other acts. But by 1979, when he did his first solo movie, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, he was in a wholly different world.

Significantly, he chose to give this concert performance in Long Beach, a city in the vicinity of Los Angeles that used to be known as “Iowa by the Sea,” and with reason. There is hardly a black face to be seen for miles around. Here he was, the “Bicentennial Nigger,” playing for a white audience. It was noticed that, although he did (wonderful) imitations of white people, Pryor used no derogatory terms for whites, and that the black man was shown less as a victim than had been Pryor’s wont in the past. His language was as foul as ever, however, and blacks were almost invariably referred to as “niggers.” All the material came from his own life—no doubt heightened. He told of boxing ingloriously as a young man in the Golden Gloves (“I had to fight these niggers [who] looked as if they just murdered their parents”) and of, quite logically, it seemed, shooting this Buick while in a rage at his wife.

The following year came his near-fatal accident, when he “went through the fire,” and now he has come back to us again in Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, with even more marked changes in social orientation. “Nigger” is gone, but so is Pryor’s papal indulgence for all black misbehavior. He mousetraps the audience several times. He is anti-crime, and he is anti-black crime. Black solidarity isn’t what it used to be either. “I trusted him because he was a brother,” Pryor says. “Well, the brother took me hook, line, and sinker. And on dry land.”

But I must explain Pryor’s method.

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Richard Pryor plays himself as a glorified id, a kind of Id Rampant. The character we are presented with on stage is feckless, foul-mouthed, profligate, promiscuous. He takes dope, drinks, is totally incapable of what psychologists call “deferred gratification,” as if he had just stepped out of the pages of Civilization and Its Discontents. He tires of women as rapidly as he takes up with them, is never in control of his emotions, is continually swept away by irrepressible desires for immediate pleasure, by frustration, exasperation, fear, rage. The antagonists in his stories (often white, or female, or both) are always calm, cool, self-possessed, while Pryor is in a state of high excitement and agitation, in a frenzy of desire for a woman, for example, who is telling him in a genteel, white voice, “Richard, please, don’t do this to yourself.” Either that or, having to look at the same face over the breakfast table every morning, he becomes totally bored with her. “Why don’t you take a vacation for a year!” “Yeah, I can’t sustain a relationship,” he says. “That’s what they say these days, I can’t sustain a relationship.”

In short, Richard Pryor, on stage, plays the very caricature of the irresponsible black man, the embodiment of almost every single stereotypical trait that traditionally consigned him to the bottom of the country’s social order. But he transcends the character. We have had Stepin Fetchit and Butterfly McQueen playing seemingly bonafide black idiots. We have had Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory “talking white” to white audiences. (We have even had Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx, amiable but insignificant black comics—neither here nor there.) But Richard Pryor for the first time has taken the “black” character at its socially most regressive, and made us laugh in a new way—as if behind this performance is a high intelligence.

I must warn the reader about Pryor’s language. He uses “motherf—er” as synonymous with “guy,” and to the virtual exclusion of “guy.” He also uses it extensively in direct address—with “Jack” as a less frequent variant, and “man” even less frequently. Some might consider this practice a symbol of an ultimate breakdown in civility or respect for language, but this is not my opinion. Plainly the character Richard Pryor is portraying would not feel authentic to him if he did not use such terms—and for me, at least, the words have no shock value whatever, even striking me as the natural vernacular for the character and the perfect foil for his composed, lucid, decorous antagonists. One of Pryor’s most wonderful scenes is one in which he reenacts fights with his wife. The wife in question is white, and his recreation of her voice is exquisite: not only white and female, but complacent, refined: “Richard, you really should learn to get in touch with your emotions.” It is interesting that in the works of so many male writers and artists it is women who are emotional, “high-strung,” but in the world of Richard Pryor he is the one subject to uncontrollable emotions, and women are “cool.” Also cool are white people, even Mafia night-club operators (“Cold! That motherf—er’s face was so cold! Damn! I’d love to have a face like that!”). Lawyers are cool, even black lawyers, who speak excellent English. Lawyer (with exaggerated aplomb): “Don’t . . . worry. You are . . . only . . . facing . . . ten years . . . in the penitentiary. . . . [after the laugh] That will be $40,000.” Pryor: “Forty thousand dollars! I just met you.”

One of the most curious things in the film is the voice in which Pryor’s cocaine-freebase pipe speaks to him, seductively, in the sequence in which he reenacts his cocaine addiction. This pipe-voice, too, is educated, almost white, speaks calmly, kindly, in impeccable English: “Come into the room, Rich. We’ll have a nice chat. Spend a few months.” In this comic psychodrama, with Pryor as id, it is only natural that the reasoning intellect should be white, or near-white. Of course, the calm, educated voice shows how reasonably such a debilitating addiction can present itself. But I am tempted by the notion that, for Richard Pryor, the calm, educated, “white” voice might always be, to some degree, the voice of the Serpent.

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Yet very early in the film we begin to see that Richard Pryor has shifted some of his social attitudes. He describes how he and Gene Wilder, to make Stir Crazy, spent some time at New Mexico State Penitentiary. The first joke is predictable. Some 80 percent of the convict population is black, “which is funny, you know, because there’s no black people in New Mexico. I think they bus ‘em in!” This gets a good laugh. But then Pryor says he thought he’d get to know some of the “brothers,” and depicts his growing alarm as it dawns on him just what kind of brothers these are. “But why did you kill everybody in the house?” Answer (super-bland): “Well, they was home.” At which point Pryor cries, “Thank God for penitentiaries!” (Huge laugh.) “You know, I used to think black people killed people by accident, but these motherf—ers is murderers! He doin’ triple life! He come back to earth, they say to him, ‘Get your little ass out of kindergarten. Back to penitentiary!’ ” He describes the different gangs in prison, the white Nazis, and “the Mexican gangs you can’t pronounce the names,” but devotes most of his loving attention to the blacks. “There’s the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, the Double Muslims. You watch out for them Double Muslims. They can’t get into heaven ‘less they take twelve motherf—ers with ‘em.” This is a long way from the Richard Pryor who a few years ago was saying, “You want to find justice in prison? That’s what you’ll find, just us.” We have come quite a distance from the black as pure victim of white society.

It is worth seeing Richard Pryor just for his imitations of white people, his impressions of Italian Americans in this film being particularly eerie. Most Americans of Anglo-Saxon or Northern European descent probably think of Italians and Italian Americans as hot-blooded, more given to feeling, perhaps even passion. But not Richard Pryor. To Pryor they are cold. Oh, he sees the surface expressiveness, the touching, the cheek-chubbing. “They like to hug you,” he says, hugging the microphone in the crook of his elbow. “Hey, you got family? You got family now.” But he senses underneath this the white man’s self-discipline, self-control—in the case of the Mafia, murderous self-control. He does a line or two from The Godfather. “Hey, could you guys let me off for old time sake?” And the answer: a relentless shaking of the head. “So cold!” moans Pryor. “God, damn!”

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But no doubt the high point of the film is the sequence taken from his own life, the cocaine addiction, the horrible accident, the hospital, the burn-care center. A man who can lift an experience like this to the highest level of humor has a gift.

Pryor swears to tell the audience the truth about the episode. As everybody knows, every night before he goes to bed he has warm milk and cookies. And one night as he was standing by the stove warming his special blend of pasteurized whole milk and low-fat milk, he touched the mixture with his cookie, “and the shit blew up!” A moment later Pryor is wheeling along, talking about freebasing. The story of his addiction is a kind of masterpiece. There are the duologues between himself and the pipe, the pipe soothing, seductive: “Come on into the room, Rich. I understand.” Later more severe: “You let me get down the other day, Rich. I . . . don’t . . . like . . . that.” When his friend Jim Brown, the former football player, tries to break him of the habit, the pipe replies suavely: “Rich. Don’t . . . listen. Where were they when you needed them?”

Describing his behavior immediately after the accident, Pryor says, “You know, when you runnin’ down the street on fire, people get out of your way real quick.” This from a man who was burned over 60 percent of his body. He stared death in the eye, suffered excruciating agony, and has come back chipper and cheeky. The man’s got something. It goes without saying that all the lines I have quoted would have been mere dross in the hands of an uninspired performer. But Pryor has split-second timing, a fabulous gift of mimicry. He changes in and out of character in the blink of an eye. There is a wild and original intelligence at work.

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Now, critics have agreed almost from the start that Richard Pryor’s material is basically “serious,” so I hope I will be forgiven if I subject his trip to Africa—also narrated in the new film—to a modest analysis to discover what he is telling us about Africa, and about race. Pryor’s first reaction on arriving in Africa is, “Somebody in my family’s been lyin’ to me!,” meaning that he is part white. For an instant I envisaged a road which he just might take if he wanted to. But he does not take it. He carries on for a bit like a stereotype Zionist in Israel: “Everybody black! From the winos to the president!” He describes the jungle: “Tarzan wouldn’t last a week!” And he does wonderful imitations of animals: “Them cheetahs is fast!” There are appeals to black pride, some of them based on the fossil discoveries of the Doctors Leakey: “We was the first people on the face of the earth to say: Where the fam I? . . . And how do you get to Detroit?”

I felt Pryor’s nerve distinctly failing him, however, when he told a story about giving a lift to a bad-smelling “tribesman.” Pryor does a marvelous imitation of himself being attacked by an evil smell, but ends the sketch with the tribesman asking to be let off because he can’t stand the smell of Pryor’s eau de cologne. Now internal evidence suggests that the African country he probably visited was Kenya, which attracts many tourists, lured by its variegated wildlife, protected in the vast Tsavo National Park. If indeed it was Kenya, the “tribesman” would have been one of the famous Masai, a great East African warrior tribe whose members are particularly resistant to modern cultural changes and (as any middle-class black in Nairobi will happily explain to you) smell really awful. The notion of a Masai hitchhiker so offended by the smell of eau de cologne that he asks to be let off is not only impossible, and unfunny; it is pious.

But the crown of Pryor’s “African” section is its conclusion. Pryor says to himself, “Well, you been here all this time. You seen any niggers?” And the answer is no: “There are no niggers in Africa!” Pryor has been thinking about it, he says. Racism is ugly, and he’s not going to say “nigger” any more. “There,” he says to the audience. “You can take that away with you.”

One can understand perfectly easily that the existence of black sovereign states in Africa has been very important to American blacks’ self-esteem. Black presidents, black commanders-in-chief, black everything. But there has developed the widespread notion in the U.S. black community that Africa is some kind of black Garden of Eden. No “niggers” in Africa? Africa has blacks far more persecuted than any in America, and by other blacks. If Richard Pryor is as “serious” as they say, and as concerned with “justice” as he says himself, it might interest him to find out about Africa some day.

Africa is tribal. As black American friends who have made the attempt to enter African society have always stressed to me, if you don’t have a tribe in Africa your skin color doesn’t make much difference. These tribes do not treat each other as “brothers.” Indeed, they are rather given to massacring one another. Does Pryor know that more than a million Ibos died in Biafra’s war for independence, fought because the Ibos felt they were persecuted by Nigeria’s dominant tribes, notably the Hausa and the Yoruba?

Even aside from the tribal question, African states are not democracies. They are governed by tiny ruling elites. Class lines are fierce. Every single black country in Africa has a derogatory term for its backward “bush” people. If you are not within the small circle of power in these countries, the means for redress of grievance are slim. I could remind Richard Pryor of the states in Africa which have recently had the misfortune of being ruled by mad tyrants (Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, Uganda), but I would prefer to offer him the example of the little country of Burundi, population four million, just some 250 miles across Lake Victoria from where he might have been in Kenya. Most of the population are Bantu-speaking Hutus (85 percent), and these Hutus had pretty much the run of Burundi until they were conquered in about the 15th century by the Tutsi (14 percent), who invaded from the northeast and established themselves as a master race. The Tutsi and the Hutu have a lord-to-serf relationship, which works well enough, I suppose, except now and then when the Hutu get restive and the Tutsi, regretfully, have to put a few to death. The last time this happened was in 1972, when the Washington Post sent a reporter to cover the story. He estimated that the Tutsi had just killed some 200,000 Hutus. The People’s Almanac (hardly a right-wing publication) records that in the first six weeks 100,000 Hutus were massacred.

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Well, Richard Pryor has gone to live on Maui. He jogs, starts each day with a health drink of fresh fruit, yogurt, and eggs, offers visitors unfiltered apple juice. I would feel less nervous about him if he at least drank filtered apple juice. In his very latest movie, Some Kind of Hero, which followed Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip by only three weeks, he plays a returned prisoner of war from Vietnam. Half comedy, half sentimental melodrama, the film has little distinction beyond its evident desire to create sympathy for the men who fought in Vietnam for their country. But this itself is not without significance, and the movie has opened strongly at the nation’s box offices. Pryor, meanwhile, has donated all the proceeds from the picture’s world premiere to the Foundation for Burn Research. “I gotta do something for the money they pay me,” Pryor told an interviewer anxiously a few months ago. “I want to make people think.”

To “make people think” is a noble aspiration. But there are the Hutu, the Tutsi, the Masai, the Hausa, the Yoruba, the Ibo, and many, many more. Richard Pryor must do some thinking himself. In the meantime, an unlikely combination of suffering, prudence, and God seems to have moved him some steps in the right direction.

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