Hollywood studios have one wish in mind when they release a movie: that it open with a bang. In the case of Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights, a swaggering gangster spree set in the ’30s, the wish came quite literally true. The film made over $18 million in its first weekend, becoming No. 1 at the box office. At the same time, the premiere weekend was marred by four outbreaks of violence, resulting in one shooting death.
For the $30 million movie, perhaps the first in that price range to incorporate the word “mother—” every 15 frames or so, the weekend started on a high note. Its klieg-lit premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theater in L. A. was attended by the star, the writer, the director and the executive producer. All their names are Eddie Murphy. The trouble began the next night Friday, when fights broke out in a Detroit theater where Harlem Nights was playing. At one point, just as Murphy embarked on a shooting scene, shots rang out in the theater. Two men, ages 17 and 21, were wounded. Later that night, brawlers were ejected from a Sacramento, Calif., theater snowing Harlem Nights. Their feud continued in a parking lot and ended with gunshots. Two 24-year-old men were seriously injured. An hour later, Marcel Thompson, 17, was shot to death in a similar fight at a theater in Richmond, Calif. When police stopped the projection of Harlem Nights to find suspects, an hour-long riot erupted. In Boston, Mayor Ray Flynn saw so many fistfights taking place in a crowd leaving Harlem Nights that he threatened to close the theater down.
“The movie glorifies violence,” said Flynn, who decided to tighten police security at the theater. “Kids play that out” Others aren’t so sure that Harlem Nights—which opened at 2,176 other theaters without incident—is to blame. “There’s nothing wrong with the show,” says Lt Raymond Howard of the Richmond, Calif., police. “But this tells me something about the nature of kids who are going to see these shows.”
“If there’s a fight at McDonald’s, what does that have to do with McDonald’s?” asks Murphy’s manager, Bob Wachs. “If there’s a fight at Giant stadium, are you going to blame the Giants? Of course not It’s not about the Eddie Murphy movie.” Yet the violence is threatening to taint that movie. For Murphy, who has put a lot on the line, Harlem Nights has been anything but a sleeper.