Murphy then took his considerable cache in Hollywood and created Coming to America with an entirely black cast. It remains a cult classic, referenced in pop (i.e., hip-hop) culture countless times. With America Murphy created a buddy ﬁlm that starred his real-life friend Arsenio Hall, whose variety show would serve as a mainstream stage for an emerging generation of rap stars. With America, Murphy also couched a romantic comedy in a story about African royalty, reﬂecting (in a fun house mirror type of way) the cultural nationalism of the ’60s, which begat a problack ethos in the ’80s that informed everything from Public Enemy to The Cosby Show.
He’d go on to write, executive produce, and direct Harlem Nights, a project meant to honor his heroes, costars Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and Della Reese, but somehow managed to render them all unfunny. Mo re convincing was Boomerang, where Murphy shone as romantic leading man opposite Halle Berry, who did some of the ﬁnest acting of her career in the ﬁ lm. Boomerang was a more mature Love Jones (which would come later), and it helped make possible many of Tyler Perry’s ﬁlms, though none quite as sophisticated as Boomerang.
Even as Eddie Murphy was breaking box oﬃce records with reworked Hollywood clichés, his stand-up work, ﬁlmed as Delirious and then Raw four years later, were truly revolutionary. The ﬁrst, in 1983, came well before rap’s entrance into the mainstream, and it took Pryor’s license to ill so far that Pryor himself called it “excessive.” In his stand-up, Murphy pushed with language, sure, but more importantly with posture. This was beyond self-possession; Murphy owned the stage with a sense of entitlement not seen since comedian Lenny Bruce’s then-shocking and sometimes illegal routines in the ’50s and ’60s. Where Bruce made assumptions about his audience’s intellectual capacity, Murphy did no bridge work to blackness; he performed with the assumption that deep-inside cultural jokes were transferable to the mainstream with no unpacking.