Dear Academy: Give Richard Pryor the Lifetime Achievement Oscar
It’s the only thing missing from the comedic genius’ legacy.
Somewhere along the way, Pryor morphed into a movie star. But his transition from the hip, aggressive, militant, hedonistic comic to the more gentrified, user-friendly mainstream celebrity never really worked. Though Pryor appeared in films like The Toy (1982), Brewster’s Millions (1985) and Critical Condition (1987), things had clearly changed. In Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982), Pryor announced that after returning from Africa he would no longer be using the word “nigger” in his routines. This was a memorable declaration. Pryor had liberated the word through his comedy routines in the ‘70s, setting the stage for hip-hop’s reclamation of this contested term from the late-‘80s going forward. Yet his refusal to continue uttering the term, along with his decision to no longer do his famous Mudbone routine, signaled that Pryor was molding his persona for more mainstream tastes. The problem is, after all these alterations, Pryor was no longer as funny.
In many ways, the 1980s were the last days of the whole black “crossover” phenomena. Up until then, the prevailing thought was that African-American entertainers with a large black fan base needed to change their image in order to be accepted by larger (read: white) audiences. We have hip- hop to thank for the end of this. But before hip-hop could fully evolve, Pryor was one of the last casualties of such a dreaded practice. Soon his physical ailments would keep him from performing. He lived the remaining years of his life away from the spotlight. Later generations don’t understand just how groundbreaking and influential Pryor was during his prime.
When discussing Pryor’s legacy, it is not something that can be reduced to one or two signature accomplishments. In order to fully appreciate his greatness, one must study what the French would call his oeuvre, his entire body of work. Transcending standup comedy, film and television, Pryor was an American original, a cultural icon who deserves the proper recognition that befits a historical figure of his stature. And maybe if we’re lucky, Hollywood can bestow this honor on Pryor before Marlon Wayans goes about destroying his legacy.
Dr. Todd Boyd is the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture and Professor of Critical Studies in the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His blog is Notorious Ph.D.