Why 1980’s Stir Crazy remained significant

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Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder scored one of their biggest hits with Stir Crazy – and the film set a record that wouldn’t be broken for some time.

In 2018, it seems as though at least a bit of a ceiling had been shattered. Of the 100 most popular fictional movies at the movie box office, 16 of them were directed by black filmmakers. Not just that, but there were some very big hits in there.

Chief amongst them was Black Panther, helmed by Ryan Coogler, and also in the list were Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle In Time, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer 2. Peter Ramsey, meanwhile, co-directed Spider-Man: Into The SpiderVerse and won an Oscar for his trouble. Meanwhile, 2017’s Fast & Furious 8, helmed by F Gary Gray, had shot through $1bn at the global box office.

It’s progress. There’s still room for a lot more. But it’s at least some progress.

Yet go back to the mid-1990s, and the figures made grim reading. At that point in time, the 30 most popular films by African-American directors at the US box office was chiefly filled by movies of the 70s and 80s. And one film stood above them all. A movie that had sold twice as many tickets as the second film on that top 30 list of all time. A list that was published back in Premiere magazine’s July 1994 issue.

That film was Stir Crazy.

The film was the reunion of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder on the big screen, after they’d captured something in the hit flick Silver Streak. It was a film that Pryor for one was pushed towards making, with his manager – David Franklin – reportedly arguing for the project. Pryor signed up with some reluctance, having been offered $1m for appearing in the movie. That said, the by-product was that he would feel pushed into the buddy films that came to define much of his movie work.

Still, he was good at them. And the teaming up with Wilder – they’d have two more movies together ahead of them – was smart. The pair worked well with each other, and this was arguably their best teaming.

What’s more, it was directed by Sidney Poitier, a man who had broken ground in front of the camera, and was now doing the same behind it. For Stir Crazy, in spite of some slightly less enthused reviews, became something of a sensation. It would sell over 37 million tickets in America alone, and would become the first film directed by an African-American helmer to cross the $100m mark at the American box office.

The depressing thing is, that record would remain in tact for quite some time. In fact, it’d be – and I’m happy to be corrected – 20 years before another film made by a black director crossed the $100m mark in the US.

To put it all into some context, going back to that Premiere list, the second movie on the top 30 was 1989’s Harlem Nights, directed by Eddie Murphy. That one brought home $60m, selling 14.2 million tickets. Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang, also starring Murphy, was third, selling fewer tickets (13.5 million) but taking more cash ($70m, the slight discrepancy due to ticket price inflation).

Other names appear on the list: John Singleton, Bill Duke, Melvin Van Peebles, Mario Van Peebles, Spike Lee, Michael Schultz (as well as a few more Poitier projects). But what’s striking is just how far ahead of the field Stir Crazy was for so long.

In fact, it’d be into the 2000s before black directors were given the opportunity to make films with a good shot at a $100m US box office total.

The Hughes Brothers steered 2010’s The Book Of Eli to just over that total, Keenan Ivory Wayans would strike significant gold with Scary Movie in 2000, F Gary Gray’s 2003 The Italian Job remake got over the $100m line, Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day earned $118m in 2004, Spike Lee’s Inside Man reached over $110m in 2006 and the late John Singleton made 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003, which made over $180m in America.

The 2000s also saw Tim Story earning significant box office, taking the helm of the first two Fantastic Four films, as well as the Ride Along series. And then Tyler Perry has emerged as a one man film industry too.

But in the 80s and 90s, black directors were primarily having to make their own opportunities, with the big studio chairs rarely afforded to them. Hence, filmmakers such as Reginald Hudlin, Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ernest R Dickerson, Doug McHenry and Darnell Martin coming to prominence initially through much smaller productions.

Stir Crazy was thus left to stand alone. An overtly mainstream comedy, made by an African American director, it showed for over a decade that when given the opportunity, there was serious box office to be made. Yet whilst Hollywood increasing looked to black actors – Eddie Murphy, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes and Will Smith to name but a few – it was depressingly slow behind the camera.

It’s what makes the career of someone such as F Gary Gray really quite extraordinary. A man who’s worked across many franchises, many genres and many movies, and who’s delivered sizeable box office and awards attention too. All against a background of an industry that’s not been forward at offering opportunities until recently.

As for Stir Crazy? It pops up on streaming services from time to time, and it’s still a solid comedy. As it turns out, it’s also – through no fault of its own – both a strong and unfortunate footnote in film history.

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