Almost nine years after his death, Richard Pryor’s life is about to given a stage and screen adaptation as film director Lee Daniels (The Butler) and comedian Lenny Henry give their own respective versions of a stupendous, brutal talent.
All I’d say is: good luck with that. A wayward genius like Pryor would probably say: You MF’s are crazy! Obviously I’d never use such profanities, but Pryor’s harrowing, humdinger of a life feels almost unfilmable because anything that tries to get close to the spirit of the man will naturally be distilled, diluted and sanitised, and therefore, not a true reflection of his nature.
His autobiography Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences certainly gives that impression. It’s like being on that rodeo horse with Gene Wilder in Stir Crazy in that you’re getting your backside jolted repeatedly by shocking interludes. The book wants to throw you off at regular intervals with graphic descriptions of the abuse he suffered as a kid, his drug abuse, his pathological quest for fame, his repeated us of the ‘n’ word – but then it calms down again into its breezy, bitesize style to give the kind of emotion and insight difficult to find elsewhere. There are more golden nuggets in this short, rampaging volume than there are in books three times the size.
In one way, Pryor seems to share a similar, aspirational mindset with that other American superstar Sammy Davis Jr – in that they both suffered tremendous hardship but also craved tremendous success. There was nothing in between. An all or nothing uber capitalism that propelled them into the big league; fast and furious but with dollops of fun.
But this fun didn’t come in the movies for Pryor as he points out his disappointment with the Hollywood films he appeared in over the years. There isn’t one film he’s really satisfied with – he thinks he can do better. Perhaps they were too gentle for him? Although when he appears with Eddie Murphy in Harlem Nights (when he already had symptoms of MS) he does feel Murphy’s comedy is ‘mean’ which makes you think whether Pryor’s own comedy was so offensive after all, at least in his own mind.
I do not think Pryor’s comedy was offensive. It was painful, authentic and groundbreaking. It was based on a shocking, semi-absurd background where adults took so much but gave back so little. Of course, that happens to many of us – but only a few of us can dig up such a devastating mine of diamonds and deliver them with such searing honesty.
And this is where any fictional treatment of Pryor’s life might hit a roadblock. How do you capture that background, that sensibility and that wild, intoxicating personality? You don’t, you just do your best.
Which is what Daniels and Henry will be doing.
It may not be enough.
But nothing ever was for Mister Richard Pryor.