×

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

  • SAG-AFTRA HQ

    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Cameron Crowe, David Crosby, A.J. Eaton.

    Cameron Crowe on Why He Loved Leaving David Crosby Doc on a CSNY Question Mark

    David Crosby may or may not have stuck a joint in Cameron Crowe’s mouth the first time he ever met the future filmmaker, when Crosby was peaking with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and his interviewer was a precocious 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. As Crowe said to Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “I remember it [...]

  • Mokalik

    Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan: African Audiences Shouldn’t Be ‘Second-Class’

    DURBAN–A young boy from a middle-class home gets an unconventional schooling in the ways of the world when he’s forced to apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop in a rough-and-tumble section of Lagos. “Mokalik” is the latest feature from Kunle Afolayan, a leading figure in the wave of filmmakers revitalizing the Nigerian film industry. The film [...]

  • Alicia Rodis photographed by Alicia Rodis

    SAG-AFTRA Moves to Standardize Guidelines for Intimacy Coordinators

    SAG-AFTRA is moving to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators as part of an effort to establish policies for union members when their work involves nudity and simulated sex. “Our goal is to normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “Intimacy coordinators provide an important safety net for [...]

  • The Lion King

    Box Office: 'The Lion King' Roars Overseas With Mighty $269 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” certainly felt the love this weekend, generating $269 million at the international box office. Director Jon Favreau’s remake of the classic Disney cartoon now holds the eighth-biggest debut of all time overseas, and that’s not including the film’s early opening in China last weekend. Combined with a stellar $185 million start [...]

  • Scarlett JohanssonMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Scarlett Johansson Reveals What We'll Learn About Black Widow in Stand-Alone Movie

    Scarlett Johansson can finally talk about her upcoming “Black Widow” movie. While she can’t divulge spoilers, she let out a big sigh of relief after the film was officially announced on Saturday during the Marvel Studios presentation at Comic-Con. “I feel like a weight has been lifted,” the Oscar nominee told Variety. “Black Widow” is [...]

  • The Lion King Box Office

    Box Office: 'The Lion King' Rules With $185 Million Debut

    Simba and Mufasa reigned supreme this weekend as Disney’s “The Lion King” dominated box office charts. Director Jon Favreau’s remake of the animated classic collected a massive $185 million from 4,756 North American theaters during its first three days of release. In yet another win for Disney, the movie landed the best domestic launch for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content