Commentary Magazine


Eddie Murphy, American

If the world of entertainment is any guide, something rather large is happening on the American racial scene. In recent months three events have occurred, each in a distinct entertainment medium. The names of these events are: (1) Michael Jackson, (2) Bill Cosby, and (3) Eddie Murphy.

In popular music, someone is always on top. There is always a number one, and a number two. But in the memory of Americans alive today, there have been at most three super-super-super star singers or groups, of the kind that makes girls faint and drives crowds hysterical. Over the years, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles stand out, strange, giant monuments thrown up by the Zeitgeist, and all white. A fourth name has now been added to this august list: Michael Jackson. No black entertainer has ever drawn such huge and feverish mobs (and white mobs) as did Michael Jackson during his “Victory Tour” of the United States in the summer of 1984.

In September of the same year, NBC brought veteran comic Bill Cosby back in a new TV comedy series slotted for 8 P.M. on Thursday nights. It was a “black” series, but with a twist—it was about an upper-middle-class black family (Cosby an obstetrician, his wife a lawyer), which is to say, the comic stereotypes in it had nothing to do with race. It was about an American family that just happened to be black. Nothing in plot or situation depended on being black in a white society. The Cosby Show shot to the top of the ratings list—number one—and now, some five months later, it has never been out of the week’s top ten.

But perhaps the most dazzling rise of all has been that of a twenty-three-year-old black from Long Island named Eddie Murphy. A member of the third generation of performers on NBC-TV’s Saturday Night Live (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner had all come out of the first), Murphy made his first two movies in 1983, 48 Hours and Trading Places. Both ended up among the ten biggest moneymakers of the year. But Murphy was still suspected of being a mere novelty, possibly just a flash in the pan, especially after the failure of his next film, Best Defense. The entry of his fourth movie, Beverly Hills Cop, into the lists for the big Christmas competition of 1984 was attended with much curiosity, particularly since Murphy was playing a role once intended for Sylvester Stallone.

The film took off with such velocity as to leave Hollywood somewhat stunned. At the close of the Christmas-New Year’s holiday season (for the movie industry the year’s second most important after summer), Beverly Hills Cop not only led the field, it had brought in three times as much money as its closest competitor (2010), while in third position was a film starring both Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. In 1984, Hollywood’s aggregate domestic box-office returns crossed the $4-billion line for the first time, a result which had been anticipated by Variety months before. “But nobody knew at the time,” reported the trade journal, “that Eddie Murphy would almost single-handedly be pulling the year’s final tally” to an all-time record.

It had never happened before. No one knew how long it would last. No black actor before had ever come within a country mile. But after years of laments over the dearth of roles for black actors and actresses, suddenly, out of the blue, young Eddie Murphy was the biggest star in Hollywood.

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How did such an extraordinary thing happen? Talk of “crossover appeal” (“black” entertainment which appeals to white audiences as well as black) seems somehow out of date. Eddie Murphy’s audience does not just include whites; it is overwhelmingly white. He lives, and excels, entirely in what would once have been considered exclusively a white man’s world. His home is in Alpine, New Jersey. His idol is Elvis Presley. He is patterning his career on that of Bob Hope—whose cheeky confidence his own style recalls in an eerie way.

Nor does Eddie Murphy interpret “black experience,” except to a minor degree. He interprets American experience. If he did not, the whole thing, simply, would not have happened. He has freed himself entirely from the Dick Gregory tradition of playing to white guilt. The fact that, for almost a generation, black satirists attacking American racism have been able to count on the instant sympathy of white audiences all over the country leads one to think that the racist America of liberal doctrine has not existed for many years now, and is, indeed, a piece of liberal mythology. Eddie Murphy, in any event, will have none of it. Actually, much of his material is devoted to satirizing, not racism, but liberal stereotypes about racism, and there is no better example of this than the show Murphy gave just before Christmas 1984 when he returned as honored guest-host to the television program of which he is an alumnus, Saturday Night Live.

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Murphy’s hallmark is a kind of sassy self-assurance, strangely without malice. He gets off the most biting lines in a sunny manner which magically neutralizes any suspicion that he himself is malicious. But cheeky, he is. Greeting the audience on the Christmas show, he explains that he swore he would never do Saturday Night Live again because “the show is terrible!” [Hilarious laughter] “I did 48 Hours and Trading Places and I felt like I was an actor now. It was like—Saturday Night Live? Huh!” Unfortunately, he says, he soon made another movie called Best Defense, which failed dismally:

It turned out to be the worst movie ever done in the history of anything and, all of a sudden, I wasn’t that hot no more, so I called up the producer of Saturday Night Live and I go, “You still got my dressing room?” . . . So I signed the contract for the Christmas show, and while I was waiting for Christmas to come, sitting in the house, all by myself, somebody brought a script for a movie called Beverly Hills Cop. [Sustained applause and cheering] Beverly Hills Cop is a hit! All of a sudden I’m an actor again! But it’s too late to pull out! . . . Now listen. Not everything on this show is hysterical. They lied to you. You’re going to see some things that suck. I want you to be prepared for that.

As can be seen, Murphy’s material contains a strong strain of veracity. At this point in his opening monologue, in any case, Murphy, in a smooth transition, adopts the solemn manner of a person about to make an appeal for victims of cerebral palsy. “Now before we get onto the funny stuff,” he says, “I want you to see something that I take very seriously. I want you to watch something. Watch this.” After a dissolve, Murphy is back, speaking with the utmost gravity:

A lot of people talk about racial prejudice. And some people have gone so far as to say that actually there are two Americas, one black and one white. [Sternly] But talk is cheap. So I decided to look at the problem myself, first hand, to go underground, and actually experience America [he drops his voice] as a white man.

Da da! trumpets blare portentously. “I hired the best makeup people in the business,” Murphy continues, maintaining dramatic intensity. “If I was going to pass as a white man, everything had to be perfect.” We watch as Murphy is transformed into a rather plausible, pink-faced white man. He studied for this role very carefully, the actor explains, watching the television serial Dynasty (“See? See how they walk? I got to remember to keep my butt real tight”) and reading Hallmark greeting cards (“You always mean lots more to me, than you could ever guess. For you have done so much to fill, my life with happi-ness”). At last he is ready!

As the audience screams with laughter, Eddie Murphy begins his life “underground” as a white man. The first thing he discovers, when he tries to buy a newspaper, is that white people don’t have to pay for things like black people. For white people, everything is free! Riding a bus, he makes another startling discovery. On the bus there is only one other black man, and when he gets off at 45th Street, the conductor, thinking there are no more blacks aboard, turns on dance-band music and the passengers begin to dance and party, turning the bus into a kind of mobile Club Med resort. So this is the way white people really live! Murphy intones: “The problem was much more serious than I had ever imagined.”

His next experience as a white man is borrowing money from a bank. He is first received by a black loan officer, who points out regretfully that “Mr. White,” although he wants to borrow $50,000, has no collateral, no credit, and even no ID. But the bank manager, seeing that the client is a white man, sends the loan officer off and grants the loan with no “formalities.” Murphy, catching on now to the way things are done in the white world, joins in the bank manager’s laughter and, referring to the departed black loan officer, giggles, “What a silly nee-grow!”

As the sketch closes, Murphy, black again, asks, “So what did I learn from all this?” And then, as My Country, ‘Tis of Thee swells in the background, he concludes solemnly, “Well, I learned that we still have a very long way to go in this country before all men are truly equal. But I’ll tell you something. I’ve got a lot of friends. And we’ve got a lot of makeup.”

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This sketch would not seem to need much interpretation. But Eddie Murphy does not let up. In the next sketch he plays the South African bishop, Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, on a U.S. television talk show where he is upstaged by another guest, Boston College’s star quarterback Doug Flutie, winner of football’s Heisman Trophy. As Flutie is explaining his “Hail Mary” pass, wherein he drops back, closes his eyes, and prays “Hail Mary, full of grace, let this ball fall into the hands of your humble servant, the wide receiver, amen” (Boston College is a Jesuit school), Murphy/Tutu fidgets clumsily with the Heisman Trophy. Finally he breaks off the arm, which draws down the wrath of the talk-show host: “You fix it! Do it! Quickly! Okay?” “But I didn’t break it on purpose!” cries the woebegone Murphy/Tutu in a South African accent. “And what about that stuff on your hair? What is that?” demands the host irritably. “That’s just Carefree Curl,” pleads Murphy. “It just makes it curlier.” When Murphy tries to bandage the broken arm with the ribbon from his Nobel Prize (Murphy, joyously: “It is a unifying symbol of our commitment to fighting racism all over the world!”), the host says wearily, “Well, that’s real nice, Tutu.” And when the bishop’s good-hearted but clumsy attempts to repair the trophy finally destroy it utterly, the host turns to Flutie, obviously the show’s real star, and says, “Thanks for coming, Doug! . . . And . . . uh . . . yuh, Tutu, if you win anything else, come back, okay?”

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But if Murphy’s treatment of Bishop Tutu is disrespectful, the working over he gives a (fictitious) Black Studies professor named Shebaz K. Morton during the program’s “Black History Minute” is merciless. At the opening of the Black History Minute, Murphy appears as Morton, glaring censoriously at the audience. This in itself brings a laugh. “I don’t see what’s so funny!” snaps Murphy, which brings even more laughter. When he fluffs a word, Murphy barks, “So I messed up. Shut up! You’re not going to make me smile!” He then proceeds to tell the story of George Washington Carver, with a few modifications.

Now, George Washington Carver, needless to say, is a truly sacrosanct American figure. Born a slave, he became one of the country’s first educated black men and made important contributions in the field of agricultural chemistry, teaching soil improvement and diversification of crops and finding hundreds of new uses for the peanut, the soybean, and the sweet potato, thus stimulating substantially the agricultural productivity of the South. In Murphy’s satire, however, the object is not George Washington Carver himself but the gross distortions introduced by the teaching of “black history.”

One night (Murphy begins in his persona of Shebaz K. Morton), Doctor Carver was having a few friends over for dinner, and one of them said, “Excuse me, George, what’s that you’re putting on your bread?” It turns out that it is nothing less than a butter substitute made from peanuts, the recipe for which Carver gives two of his guests, “Skippy” Williamson and “Jif” Armstrong, preferring himself to work on a method for compressing peanuts into phonograph needles. Thereupon Skippy and Jif, both white men, steal Carver’s recipe, patent it, and reap untold fortunes, leaving Carver to die penniless and insane, still trying to play a phonograph record with a peanut. Thus our Black History Minute.

(The real Carver died sane, wealthy, and widely admired, founding at his death a research foundation at the Tuskegee Institute.)

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Beverly Hills Cop is a fairly conventional film policier, which without Murphy’s star performance would certainly not be one for the history books, although it also has a talented young director, Martin Brest. Murphy plays Foley, a Detroit police detective whose best friend is murdered early in the movie. The trail leads Foley, on leave, to Beverly Hills, where the police procedures provide some comic contrast with those of Detroit. (The politeness of the police of the whole Los Angeles area must be somewhat incredible to anyone accustomed only to the inner-city police of the great metropolises of the East.) Foley, after scenes of high adventure, breaks open an international crime ring and avenges the death of his friend.

If this role had been accepted by Sylvester Stallone, an actor not without talent, the result would no doubt have been a straight action movie with vengeance as its driving force. With Eddie Murphy in the role it became what is known in the trade as an “action comedy.” But the outline of the plot has remained quite unchanged, and almost no alterations at all were made to accommodate the fact that Murphy is black. He is simply a Detroit cop. In only one scene is there even any mention of race, when with no reservation Murphy bluffs his way into one of Beverly Hills’s top hotels by raising his voice and charging the hotel with discriminating against him because he is a “Negro.” (It is not discriminating, and both he and the audience know this full well.)

What the authors of the film have done is simply to ornament the basic story line with a number of occasions where Murphy can display his glib, sunny, comic talents. In one of his best scenes, he impersonates a federal-government inspector in order to intimidate a whole warehouse full of the chief villain’s private security guards. One of Murphy’s principal stocks in trade, in fact, is brassy, fast-talking impersonations in which he assumes another identity in order to get past some obstacle. In this one film alone he impersonates a government inspector, a correspondent for Rolling Stone, a street black involved in the cocaine trade, and a homosexual lover of the villain. The fact that in most of these cases Murphy is a black man outwitting and getting the better of white men might add a certain something to the scene for some viewers, but perhaps not that much. Heroes have a way of being smarter, stronger, or more courageous than their adversaries in any case. That’s what a hero is.

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So here we have young Eddie Murphy, the first black star to make it to the very, very top in Hollywood—and I mean $25 million for a six-picture deal. His father was a policeman. His stepfather is a plant foreman. Eddie Murphy does not take drugs. He does not drink. He even goes light on caffeine, preferring herbal tea. He wears a small gold crucifix around his neck. Murphy offers a sharp contrast to the other outstanding black movie comic today, Richard Pryor, who almost burned himself to death a few years ago while “freebasing” cocaine and whose whole comic persona is based on the stereotype of the feckless, improvident, black wastrel—be he junky, wino, pimp, or just general lowlife.

The differences between the two men, both extremely gifted, might be partly generational. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Richard Pryor was twenty-seven, Eddie Murphy was six. In Richard Pryor’s impressionable years, Governor George Wallace of Alabama was one of the country’s leading racists. In Eddie Murphy’s, Wallace had become the black man’s friend, winning massive black support when he reentered politics. There are no longer prominent men in the United States like the old Governor Wallace. Eddie Murphy did not need to read about this in a sociology text; he has just been keeping his eyes open.

Conquest of the supreme heights by a black entertainer—let alone a hat trick, three in the same season—is unprecedented. Murphy, Cosby, and Michael Jackson might be the first black superstars of post-racist America.

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Footnotes

Hollywood has seen more bizarre substitutions than this. When Chartoff and Winkler, producers of the Rocky series, were at the beginning of their careers, they were pressing eagerly for a screenplay that had been written for Julie Christie. The studio finally gave them the green light, but they were told they could not have Julie Christie. In her place they were offered: Elvis Presley. After a lightning rewrite, the film went before the cameras.

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