June 3, 2019  (Web Review)

I Am Richard Pryor

(2018) 91 min. DVD: $19.99. Virgil Films (avail. from most distributors). Closed captioned.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

When the door opened to mainstream acceptance for African American comedians, Richard Pryor (1940-2005) boldly walked through it and never looked back. Directed by Jesse James Miller, this documentary recaps the turbulent life, career, and times of Pryor, who was born in a brothel in Peoria, IL, that was owned by his grandmother (who raised him). Pryor, whose mother was a prostitute and father was a pimp, always had a complicated relationship with women, at times kind and considerate, and at other moments abusive and out of control. He won some recognition for his talent when young, and in the mid-’60s became a “Cosby clone”—a rubber faced jokester armed with affability and one liners, making a name for himself on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin shows. But Pryor was leading something of a double life—feeling guilty, lacking direction, and using drugs instead of therapy. In the late ‘60s, the black militant scene and a personal crisis led to a meltdown that caused him to stalk off a Las Vegas stage. Self-medicating with drugs, Pryor went on to success with his racially-charged concerts and comedy albums. Although Pryor never had any formal acting training, he proved to be a natural, holding his own in starring roles opposite Gene Wilder. Badly burned while freebasing cocaine, Pryor had a life-changing moment. Afterwards, he still did standup comedy—even using his near-death experience for laughs—but he also appeared in bland, mediocre comedy films, which gave him financial security, if not happiness. Multiple sclerosis ended a comic career that was noted both for fearlessness and vulnerability. Featuring insights from fellow comics including Lily Tomlin, Howie Mandel, and Sandra Bernhard, as well as Pryor’s last wife, this film pays tribute to a not always likeable man who was also a comic genius. Recommended. Aud: P. (S. Rees)