×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

SXSW Film Review: ‘I Am Richard Pryor’

Jesse James Miller’s biographical documentary is a conventional but fascinating portrait of the self-destructive comic great.

Director:
Jesse James Miller
With:
Lily Tomlin, Tiffany Haddish, Howie Mandel, Sandra Bernhard, Mike Epps, Jimmie Walker, Henry Jaglom, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Ron De Biasio, Rocco Urbisci.
Release Date:
Mar 15, 2019

1 hour 32 minutes

Set to air March 15 on the Paramount Network after its SXSW world premiere, “I Am Richard Pryor” is a largely satisfying if thoroughly conventional portrait of the immensely gifted and deeply troubled entertainer whose richly deserved reputation as a comic genius stems at least partially from his frequent and fearless willingness to make himself the target of his take-no-prisoners humor.

Director Jesse James Miller has entwined film clips, archival material and talking-heads interviews to fashion what occasionally feels like an officially sanctioned biography — an impression only reinforced by the billing of Jennifer Lee Pryor, the subject’s widow and a recurrent interviewee in the film, as an executive producer. Still, the story that emerges is undeniably fascinating, and may prove especially intriguing for viewers who have only recently discovered the late legend through his scripted features and comedy-concert films.

Even longtime fans of Pryor might be surprised by those sections of the documentary that illustrate highlights of his early career, during a time when the only way a black comic could hope to achieve mainstream success was to come across as safe and unthreatening as Bill Cosby did. (Miller is savvy enough to just place that factoid squarely on the table without any side orders of shade or snark.) At one point, we see a snippet from a 1966 episode of “Kraft Summer Music Hall” in which Pryor appears alongside a well-groomed George Carlin and a squeaky-clean John Davidson — and all three men look like they’re ready to join an Up With People singalong.

Pryor couldn’t play that game very long, however. After literally walking away from a high-paying Las Vegas gig (which, the documentary pointedly observes, called for him to perform for mostly Caucasian audiences), he blazed a path to stardom on his own terms with much edgier, more personal, and unapologetically foul-mouthed stand-up material. Tiffany Haddish, a contemporary comic performer who credits Pryor as an influence, sounds at once admiring and astonished as she marvels at how, as early as the 1970s, Pryor was offering savagely satirical commentary on, among other issues, police shootings of African-American men.

Miller’s narrative proceeds on parallel tracks that often intersect, showing how Pryor’s vertiginous mood swings and ever-increasing reliance on drugs failed to impede — for a while, at least — his string of successes as a live performer, on comedy records (his 1975 Grammy Award-winning “That Nigger’s Crazy” is duly noted as a groundbreaking career highlight) and, of course, in movies.

There’s a case to be made that “I Am Richard Pryor” could have benefitted from a wider range of scenes from Pryor’s cinematic oeuvre. It would have been amusing, and revealing, to see a very young Pryor — cast as a cop! — making his movie debut, and holding his own opposite Sid Caesar, in William Castle’s “The Busy Body” (1967). And it might have been downright gobsmacking to see Pryor and Bill Cosby actually together at long last in the 1978 film of Neil Simon’s “California Suite.”

On the other hand, the movies that are excerpted here (including the underrated “Greased Lightnin’”) are adequately representative of his starring performances — and the clips from his classic 1977 “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” are so uproariously funny, they may well cause a sizable spike in Netflix streaming.

Seeing Pryor at his most hilarious makes it all the more painful to follow “I Am Richard Pryor” as the documentary charts his decline and fall. Naturally, the film pays an appropriate amount of attention to the night in 1980 when Pryor nearly burned himself to death while freebasing. But long before that, Miller makes it clear, early and often, that Pryor was psychologically scarred by his harsh childhood in Peoria, Ill. His mother was a prostitute, his father was a pimp and his grandmother was a madam — facts he carefully scrubbed from his biography during his salad days in showbiz, but never, ever forgot.

Jennifer Lee Pryor, along with other intimates and admirers, describe with equal measures of affection and clear-eyed explicitness a brilliant but undisciplined artist who could never fully control his demons. And while his rages sometimes were justified — such as when he battled nervous network censors of his short-lived NBC variety show — he made impossible demands on the people who cared about him most, and caused collateral damage with his self-destructive impulses. “I Am Richard Pryor” celebrates its subject. But, to its credit, it stops short of entirely excusing him.

SXSW Film Review: ‘I Am Richard Pryor’

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 12, 2019. Running time: 92 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Paramount Network presentation of a Network Entertainment production in association with Tarnished Angel. Producer: Derik Murray. Executive producers: Paul Gertz, Kent Wingerak, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Frank Anderson, Steve Kotlowitz, Greg Zeschuk, Jhod Cardinal, Jaimee Kosanke, Jon Slusser, Kevin Kay, David Reeder, Robert Pirooz, Peter Scarth.

Crew: Director, writer: Jesse James Miller. Camera (color): Shaun Lawless. Editor: Graham Kew. Music: Schaun Tozer.

With: Lily Tomlin, Tiffany Haddish, Howie Mandel, Sandra Bernhard, Mike Epps, Jimmie Walker, Henry Jaglom, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Ron De Biasio, Rocco Urbisci.

More Film

  • Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne'

    Beijing Festival Unveils 'Max Max,' 'Bourne,' Kurosawa Screening Series

    The upcoming Beijing International Film Festival will give space to high profile Hollywood franchise movies with screenings of all films in both the “Mad Max” and “Bourne Identity” series. Classic Hollywood fare will also feature prominently in a line-up that, as usual, features an eclectic grab bag of titles. The local government-backed festival opens April [...]

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

  • Janelle Monae

    Film News Roundup: Janelle Monae to Star in Film From Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

    In today’s film news roundup, Janelle Monae will star in a Lionsgate movie, Bill Nighy joins “Emma,” and documentaries on surfer Bethany Hamilton and Asbury Park are dated. CASTINGS Janelle Monae will star in an untitled Lionsgate movie directed by the duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content