Eddie Murphy's attempts at slotting his brazen persona into action-comedies of various stripes across the past two decades have been hit-and-miss, to say the least. To revisit the concert film Raw, however, is to rediscover this performer at his absolute finest.
The critics – that bunch of venerable reviewers who have occupied, usually for far too long, the single film positions on the major circulation newspapers and magazines – definitely spoke, in roaring unison, on the matter of Eddie Murphy and Raw back at the moment of its Australian release in 1988.
The judgement was clear. Neil Jillet in The Age: "Foul-mouthed, vicious, anti-women and largely unfunny". Keith Connolly in The Herald: "Scatological, sexist, homophobic, racist filth". Evan Williams in The Australian: "Wretched".
Even some young hipsters in less weighty reviewing positions, more predisposed to indulge Murphy, betrayed a faint but unmistakeable tone of liberal outrage and moral rectitude in their descriptions. Thus Michael Hutak in Filmnews avowed that Raw was "the most incredibly foul mouthed onslaught I've ever come across" (really?), while Gianna Rosica of the Film Review Crew (3RRR) referred to Murphy's endless stream of "cuss words". Cuss words!
Although you would hardly know it from these reviews, there is a noble line of fast and dirty talking comedians, from Lenny Bruce to Richard Pryor, whose colourful and brilliant obscenities fed so much into the tough cinema of the 1970s (De Palma, Scorsese, Peckinpah, Schrader, Australia's Pure Shit ). But this line obviously petered out at some indefinable moment of the clean and conservative decade of the '80s, leaving Murphy high and dry, without critical support. Audience support is another world altogether, and happily Murphy still got plenty of that at the time. But can there be a kind, true word, even today, in defence of the raw Eddie Murphy?
There is a nagging dislocation of two things that never came together in virtually every review of Raw. On the one hand, Murphy is pegged as racist, sexist and foul mouthed. But on the other hand – this much is grudgingly admitted – he is nonetheless a brilliant performer! As if the content of Murphy's show, and indeed the very words he chooses to use, can somehow be unproblematically separated off from his performance. The Filmnews review expresses this critical dyslexia strikingly: "To place so much emphasis on the smut denies this comic genius his due". But it seems to me that to give Murphy his due you have to engage with him as a whole – cuss words, sexism, bravado and all. You have to get in there with him, allowing yourself to be both swayed a little and bruised a little. The process of getting an audience to engage – persuading them to let down their ideologically conditioned guard for a moment, however difficult or troubling it might turn out to be for them – is at the very heart of the modern stand-up comedian's art.
Murphy is indeed a brilliant performer – his split-second intuition of how to play a live crowd is breathtaking. His art consists of luring you in, rendering you complicit, making you feel secure that you're on the right side of the laughter ... and then he nails you. When Murphy nails the respective segments of his audience – man, woman, white, black, wealthy, poor – he makes himself an incredibly divisive comedian. The moment when Murphy – this proud, black comedian – slips the term "dumb nigger" into his spiel is particularly breathtaking. Although he gets some of his mileage out of breaking language taboos (such as the wonderful moment when he 'makes' Mr Conservative Bill Cosby, in an imagined scenario, say the word 'fuck'), Murphy's real transgressions involve how far he will go, step by step, in offending and alienating almost everyone in his audience.
There is a cumulative, escalating, dizzying effect in the way Murphy drives from sketch to sketch in his monologue – a brilliant comedic structure of echoes, reversals and toppers, every punchline going one better than the last. This structure crucially inflects the apparently unconditional sexism-racism-etc which Murphy loudly announces in the first few minutes of his act. As the performance proceeds, the jokes are even allowed to double back on Murphy himself. In fact, the Murphy world-view does several complete turns in eighty minutes – so that, for instance, all the women in the audience who are initially pegged as sexually submissive grow more centrally powerful and libidinal with each sketch. (This is why – despite the disbelief voiced by our liberal critics – many women like Murphy's comedy.) The essential aspect of Murphy's comedy is that he systematically derides every social position, and then doubles back to grant everyone their wicked moment of pleasure and power within the scheme of things.
Eddie Murphy is someone who performs his own contradictions – and also the contradictions of his time, his society. Perhaps Murphy's greatest transgression is the nakedness with which he exposes the messy interrelations and irreconcilable contradictions between love, sex and money in our world – a truth which offends and embarrasses wimpy humanists on both wings of political ideology. Eddie certainly isn't a progressive comedian. But isn't there something dreadfully uninteresting and awfully safe about Ben Elton-style progressive comedy (Hollywood Shuffle , black liberal film down to its toes, is universally preferred over Raw by the critics)?
More interesting and significant by far is the moment when shit gets thrown around a troubled mainstream culture – and some of it sticks. For this reason alone, Eddie Murphy demands our attention and respect. Raw is simultaneously a shocking and invigorating document.
© Adrian Martin July 1988/June 1993