'I Am Richard Pryor': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Best for those who know little of the story.

Jesse James Miller offers another made-for-TV account of Richard Pryor's unsafe-for-broadcast career.

The second made-for-TV documentary about Richard Pryor in the last few years, Jesse James Miller's I Am Richard Pryor is a somewhat more satisfying experience than Marina Zenovich's Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic, but shares many of its blind spots and curious absences. Portraying a notoriously untidy genius in an easy-to-digest format, the doc does a fine job of showing how childhood pain directed his career's erratic path and how his shifting political consciousness prepared him to create his most treasured material. It's a welcome primer for those who are new to Pryor's career, but old fans might be better off sitting down with some of the comedy records.

Produced in part by a team that has made a cottage industry of so-so films — I Am Heath Ledger; I Am Chris Farley — about celebrities who are no longer around to speak those words, the doc was also executive produced by one of the five women he was married to, Jennifer Lee Pryor. That may help explain some choices of emphasis in the account of Pryor's love life: Where Omit introduced several of the women he was involved with, this film has one. Perhaps that's in keeping with Jimmie Walker's observation here that Pryor never truly had girlfriends or wives — meaning that no woman was in his life long or deeply enough to outweigh anyone else.

No woman, that is, except the grandmother who raised him in a brothel. Authors and fellow comics talk about how Pryor had to ignore his thoroughly disreputable upbringing, creating a fake childhood during the "whitebread" phase of his career, when he was following the lead of the beloved, inoffensive (ahem) Bill Cosby.

Henry Jaglom, who worked with Pryor during those years, recalls giving him LSD one time and having to stop Pryor from jumping out a seventh-floor window. Only then did he realize the pain Pryor was carrying around with him. But it would still be a while before Pryor acknowledged that publicly.

After walking offstage at a high-profile Las Vegas show and burning some professional bridges, the comedian retreated to Berkeley, California, where he encountered black intellectuals and political activists; he experimented with different kinds of self-expression, and was permanently changed.

Miller charts the explosive impact this had on Pryor's comedy and how the new material transformed his career. He played small film roles and got Oscar buzz for them; he freaked network execs out; he did a "dance" with Hollywood, revealing parts of his true self in bigger film roles while trying to make himself palatable at the same time. Lily Tomlin, Tiffany Haddish and musician Greg Tate all make interesting observations about this tightrope act, but it's comedian Mike Epps who holds back the least, seeming to channel some of the anger about racism and the skittish American media that pushed Pryor to artistic highs and personal lows.

Arrests, drug problems and personal misbehavior all figure into the account of Pryor's most famous years. As in the other doc, we hear about how the most lasting account of this turmoil — the concert movie Live on the Sunset Strip — was partly a creation of editing. "It was not the great comeback everybody thought it was," says Lee, recalling how badly some of the material went over in person. Still, author Todd Boyd sees the finished film as a magnum opus before Pryor "transitioned" to a "more user-friendly" version of himself, making embarrassing appearances in bad, big-budget pictures (like Superman III) before the tragic multiple sclerosis diagnosis that ended his career far too early.

Production company: Network Entertainment
Distributor: Paramount Network
Director-screenwriter: Jesse James Miller
Producer: Derik Murray
Executive producers: Paul Gertz, Kent Wingerak, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Frank Anderson, Steve Kotlowitz
Director of photography: Philip Lanyon
Editor: Graham Kew
Composer: Schaun Tozer
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

91 minutes