A Pryor Engagement at BFI Southbank

The BFI today announces full details of A PRYOR ENGAGEMENT – a major retrospective documenting the career of RICHARD PRYOR, arguably the most famous stand-up comedian of all time.

Taking place at BFI Southbank from 1 September – 5 October, the season is programmed by Nellie Killian, and was first presented at BAMcinématek, New York, in 2013. An idol to generations of comedians from both sides of the Atlantic, Pryor’s filmed comedy specials such as RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT (Jeff Margolis, 1979), RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP (Joe Layton, 1982) and his own directorial effort RICHARD PRYOR… HERE AND NOW (1983) live on as a testament to his mastery.

His ability to seamlessly blend broad character work, searing observations from his perspective as a black man in America, and naked revelations about his troubled childhood and struggles with addiction, have assured him a place in the pantheon of true comedy legends. Pryor’s stardom propelled him from the stand-up stage to Hollywood, where he starred in classics of Black 1970s Hollywood, art house films, and everything in between. As well as his live specials, the season will include screenings of films such as LADY SINGS THE BLUES (Sidney J. Furie, 1972), CARWASH (Michael Schultz, 1976), SILVER STREAK (Arthur Hiller, 1976), BLUE COLLAR (Paul Schrader, 1978) STIR CRAZY (Sidney Poitier, 1980), BREWSTERS MILLIONS (Walter Hill, 1985) and JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (Richard Pryor, 1986).

The season will begin with a contextual event RICHARD PRYOR: A COMEDY GENIUS on 1 September; this richly illustrated panel discussion, presented in partnership with We Are Parable, will explore Pryor’s memorable stand-up moments and film roles and reflect on how he used his personal experiences as inspiration for his comedic work. 

BFI AFRICAN ODYSSEYS will also present a special talk, THE BLACK HISTORY OF COMEDY on 10 September – this interactive session, presented by Tony Warner (Black History Walks/Chair of African Odysseys’ steering committee), will piece together a visual tapestry of the best historical comedy from popular and lesser-known black comics from the 1960s to now. Over 40 years after RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT, Pryor remains both essential and inimitable, and this season will give audiences a chance to experience this legendary performer on the big screen. 

FILMS SCREENING IN ‘A PRYOR ENGAGEMENT’:

●       Richard Pryor plays Billie Holiday’s confidant and collaborator in LADY SINGS THE BLUES (Sidney J Furie, 1972), Motown Production’s biopic of the troubled genius starring Diana Ross; this was a personal film for Pryor, who had his own well-publicised struggles with addiction.

●       Zalman King stars in SOME CALL IT LOVING (James B Harris, 1973), a riff on Sleeping Beauty, playing a man who becomes sexually obsessed with a comatose woman. Pryor appears as a desolate drunk, one of the few characters outside of King’s macabre mansion.

●       One of the definitive concert films, WATTSTAX (Mel Stuart, 1973) sees Pryor guide viewers through a cavalcade of iconic performances from artists including Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas and many more.

●       Pryor co-wrote BLAZING SADDLES (1974) with director Mel Brooks, and was originally meant to star in it, but unfortunately he was uninsurable at the time of shooting. One of Brooks’ bawdiest spoofs sees a corrupt Old West politician hire Black Bart to be the first black sheriff of Rock Ridge in an attempt to sow chaos and make way for the town’s destruction.

●       Pryor joins an all-star cast in the Motown Productions’ charmer THE BINGO LONG TRAVELING ALL-STARS & MOTOR KINGS (John Badham, 1976) set in the waning days of the racially segregated Baseball League; Pryor plays ‘Carlos Nevada’, a player working on his Spanish in the hopes of passing and a place in the all-white Major League.

●       A stone cold 1970s classic, CAR WASH (Michael Schultz, 1976) charts a day in the life of Los Angeles’ DeLuxe Car Wash. A musical of sorts, driven by the wall to wall sounds of the fictional KGYS radio, the film bounces around a large ensemble of employees and customers, including Pryor’s Daddy Rich, an evangelist for the all-mighty dollar in a solid gold limousine.

●       Set on a train from Los Angeles to Chicago, SILVER STREAK (Arthur Hiller, 1976) marks Pryor’s first collaboration with his frequent co-star Gene Wilder. The film mixes romance, comedy, caper, and big-budget action, and set the template for a generation of genre-bending buddy movies, with Wilder and Pryor’s chemistry creating the gold standard.

●       In WHICH WAY IS UP? (Michael Schultz, 1977) Pryor plays fruit picker Leroy Jones (and Jones’ father, and a wayward reverend), who becomes an unlikely hero to his fellow workers as he juggles his wife and a new love.

●       Pryor stars alongside Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto in Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, BLUE COLLAR (1978), a searing portrait of American working life. Fed up with just about every aspect of their jobs, the three friends hatch a plan to rob their union office for a quick score, but soon get in over their heads when the safe contains much more than they expected.

●       One of the greatest stand-up performances ever filmed, Pryor’s first concert film RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE IN CONCERT (Jeff Margolis, 1979) provides a perfect introduction to his unique genius.

●       In their biggest hit, STIR CRAZY (Sidney Poitier, 1980), Pryor and Wilder reteam to play an actor-writer duo railroaded into life in prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Directed by Sidney Poitier, Pryor and Wilder are given free reign and let it rip – ricocheting off each other throughout the film as they survive their new life in prison and plot their escape.

●       Based on a story idea by Pryor, BUSTIN’ LOOSE (Oz Scott, 1981) has him firing on all cylinders as an ex-con getting back on his feet with a job driving a busload of orphans from Philadelphia to Seattle. Cicely Tyson anchors the madcap journey west as a teacher with a heart of gold and the object of Pryor’s affection.

●       In his return to the stage after setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, Pryor somehow tops himselfin RICHARD PRYOR: LIVE ON THE SUNSET STRIP (Joe Layton, 1982), oscillating between some of his best-loved riffs and characters and a confessional mode as he lays bare many of his demons, from his relationships with women to his struggle with addiction.

●       Pryor’s first directorial effort and his final major stand-up film RICHARD PRYOR… HERE AND NOW (Richard Pryor, 1983) finds him proudly sober and more at ease than his usual wired presence. He gives a rowdy audience the audacious, vulnerable, self-lacerating material they expect from a man who had by then spent a tumultuous decade at the top of his field.

●       Walter Hill directs this manic comedy BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (Walter Hill, 1985) about a minor league baseball player who stands to inherit an outrageous fortune, but only if he can spend $30million dollars in 30 days. Brewster comes up with increasingly elaborate and arcane ways to spend, only to find out again and again how hard it is to lose money once you have it.

●       Pryor wrote, directed and starred in JO JO DANCER, YOUR LIFE IS CALLING (1986) about a working-class comic raised in a whorehouse only to become one the most well-respected entertainers of his generation. Pryor kept close to the details of his own life and produced a startlingly personal film, one of the unsung masterpieces of autobiographical cinema.

●       In his final role, Pryor plays a small part in David Lynch’s enigmatic LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, 1997). A fascinating, experimental entry into Lynch’s filmography, the film centres on a saxophonist who is tormented by the murder of his wife and the mysterious figures that seem to follow him wherever he goes.

Health and safety measures continue at BFI Southbank, with up- to- date guidance available on the BFI website.

On-sale dates: Tickets for the season are on sale to BFI Members now and go on sale to the general public on 5 August.