When Eddie Murphy gets up on stage and grabs a microphone, you wouldn’t expect anything less than the audience rolling on the floor laughing with what comes out of his mouth.
That was exactly the scenario Monday night at the Landmark Theaters Annex in Los Angeles as Murphy was honored with the Career Achievement Award at the Celebration of Black Cinema event presented by the Critics Choice Association.
The event also lauded three other honorees, Nia Long, Kasi Lemmons and Chiwetel Ejiofor, for their outstanding filmic achievements this year — highlighted by each one’s carefully chosen presenter — and paid homage to more than a century of black cinema and one of its groundbreaking creators, Oscar Micheaux. He was a director, writer and producer of more than 40 films over the course of three decades, beginning with his first full-length feature in 1919, which secured his place in history as one of the most important pioneers of African American cinema.
Clips from some of his early films, recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, were shown to the audience during ceremonies hosted by former AMPAS chief Cheryl Boone Isaacs.
But back to Murphy, who is undergoing what I’m going to call a Murphonnaissance after his somewhat sporadic yet often notable appearances in recent years.
The most commercially successful African American actor in the history of motion pictures is poised to take center stage again. To wit, his starring role in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name” and his upcoming hosting gig on the Dec. 21 Christmas edition of “Saturday Night Live,” the venue that started it all for him in, gulp,1980.
Murphy was a cast member through April 1984, doing impressions of people including Bill Cosby, James Brown and Sammy Davis Jr. and memorably playing characters like Buckwheat, Mr. Robinson and Velvet Jones. He last hosted the show in December ’84, so it will be 35 years almost to the day when he takes the reins at Studio 8H once again.
Then there is the sequel to the hit 1988 film “Coming to America,” aptly titled “Coming 2 America,” slated for release next summer. And let’s also mention the announced “Beverly Hills Cop 4,” in which he’ll reprise his role as Axel Foley.
Murphy was feted by “Dolemite” and “Coming 2 America” costume designer Ruth E. Carter, who won an Academy Award for her work designing the costumes for “Black Panther.”
“Ruth E. Carter is my name and costume design is my motherfucking game,” she said, in a play on Dolemite’s catchphrase. “Before ‘Black Panther’ introduced us to African royalty, Eddie Murphy did in ‘Coming to America,’ so when Eddie called to ask me to design for the sequel, I didn’t waste a moment. I packed my bags, got my passport and headed from Wakanda to Zumunda,” Carter explained in her spirited introduction of Murphy, who received a standing ovation as he took the stage in a velvet-collared grey suit adorned with crown brooches on each lapel. Diamonds? Most likely.
Referencing the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), several of whose members were in attendance, Murphy reflected on the beginning of his career. “When I first started 40 years ago there was exactly one black film critic and he was a crazy m-f (euphemism),” Murphy said, to uproarious laughter from the crowd. “I hated that fucking dude.”
“They didn’t have no makeup, no hair department, producers, none of that,” he said about the black experience in those days gone by. “It was rough, especially if you [went] to the hair department. If you’ve never watched ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ you’ll be like, ‘Is this how this motherfucker came to dinner?’ Sidney [Poitier] was such a brilliant actor — he was able to act like his hair was combed,” Murphy joked, as the audience roared with laughter.
In her acceptance speech, Long also mentioned the challenges that black actors face when it comes to hair and makeup, saying she carries around her own bag of products specifically suited to her needs.
The actress memorably made her film debut in John Singleton’s Oscar-nominated “Boyz n the Hood” and brought up the late director’s daughter Justice on stage with her, where they shared a tearful embrace. Long, who had been introduced by Chaz Ebert, concluded her emotional speech by promising to keep Singleton’s legacy alive.
Producer Debra Martin Chase introduced honoree Lemmons, highlighting a number of her triumphs as a director, writer — and at the beginning of her three-decade long career, an actor. Her latest is this season’s “Harriet,” which Martin Chase produced.
Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou,” her 1997 directorial debut, is considered one of the first films to showcase the beauty of African American Southern culture and was recently inducted into the National Film Registry.
Ejiofor was honored by another acclaimed actor, Don Cheadle, who lauded the British thesp for his work directing and starring in this year’s “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” based upon the memoir of a young man who saved his African village from drought. It’s been a busy year for Ejiofor. He appeared in “Maleficent 2” and lent his voice to the character of Dr. Watson in “Sherlock Ghomes” and to the infamous Scar in Disney’s “The Lion King.”
Now, the BAFTA-winning and Oscar-nominated actor (for 2013’s “Twelve Years a Slave”) has one more thing to roar about.