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.

Jesse James Miller
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

  • Brie Larson Takes On 'Beat Saber'

    Brie Larson Takes On 'Beat Saber' With Jimmy Fallon

    “Avengers: Endgame’s” Brie Larson took to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” to play around in virtual reality. After chatting with Fallon about the upcoming Marvel superhero flick, Larson got hooked up with an HTC Vive with the talk show hit to give “Beat Saber” a try. Fallon was first up, who played through a [...]

  • Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan

    Martin Scorsese's 'Rolling Thunder' Bob Dylan Doc Hits Netflix June 12 (EXCLUSIVE)

    You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows, but Bob Dylan fans have been waiting for some kind of reliable forecast to know when “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese” might be rolling in. Here’s that storm alert: Netflix will be releasing the documentary June 12. [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    Box Office: 'Avengers: Endgame' Racks Up Massive $169 Million Globally

    “Avengers: Endgame” is barreling toward a record-eviscerating weekend after opening to a mighty $169 million in its initial day of global release. That heroic haul includes a $107.5 million debut in China, an $8.4 million launch in South Korea, a $7 million bow in Australia and a $6 million day one in France. All in, [...]

  • Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone

    Phyllida Lloyd’s ‘Herself’ Adds Cast, Cornerstone Boards Sales (EXCLUSIVE)

    Cornerstone Films has boarded sales on “Herself,” the female-driven movie from “Mamma Mia!” and “The Iron Lady” helmer Phyllida Lloyd. Irish actor Clare Dunne, who starred in Lloyd’s all-female theater production of “Henry IV,” will play a single mother determined to build her own home with a free online plan, rebuilding her life in the [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    How the Avengers Became Such a Marvel in China

    “Avengers: Endgame” is on the fast track to becoming Hollywood’s most successful title ever in China, having already raked in RMB1 billion ($148 million) in just 45 hours – more than the Chinese earnings for “Wonder Woman” and “Once Upon a Deadpool” combined. It made as much in a single hour as the entire opening [...]

  • Todd Phillips

    Why 'Hangover' Director Todd Phillips Keeps Coming Back to His Favorite DP, Lawrence Sher

    “That’s my guy Larry,” says director Todd Phillips upon learning that Variety has selected his favorite DP, Lawrence Sher, as a billion-dollar cinematographer. The duo have worked together on a half dozen films, including all three installments of the “Hangover” franchise, “Due Date,” “War Dogs” and the upcoming “Joker,” with Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De [...]

  • Lawrence Sher Cinematographer

    Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Shoots Smash Comedies and Big Blockbusters Alike

    For cinematographer Lawrence Sher, the focus has always been on the director. That philosophy has carried Sher’s imagery to millions of filmgoers, including his latest work set to hit screens this year: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” directed by Michael Dougherty, and “Joker,” directed by Todd Phillips, who has also collaborated with Sher on all [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content