If you were commissioned with summarizing Richard Pryor’s life in the span of a 90-minute documentary, how would you tackle it?
The answer is not as easy as you might think. His legendary comedy career alone could consume the vast majority of that time, and that wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. There’s his childhood, which saw him raised by his grandmother in her brothel. There’s his movie career, where he fought hard to elevate the status of African-Americans on both sides of the camera. Then there are the personal problems, from his seven marriages to his legal troubles to the descent into drug abuse, culminating in the infamous incident in 1980 when he set himself on fire.
Marina Zenovich, a documentary filmmaker who has made a career of taking on complicated lives in her films, knew that making the life of Pryor, who died in 2005 at age 65, into a movie was going to be a challenge. "It’s hard," she tells Co.Create. "You just kind of have to jump in and start."
The result is the film Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic, which premieres on Showtime on May 31. Zenovich was approached by Pryor’s widow, Jennifer Lee Pryor, to do the film, after a few aborted attempts with other filmmakers. Jennifer, who was Pryor’s fourth and seventh wife and is also in charge of his estate, was a fan of Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired and felt that she could do a good job of documenting Pryor’s life, warts and all.
"I was hoping we could reveal not only Richard’s work, but the connection from Richard’s work to his life," says Pryor. "You’d have a fight with Richard one night, and he’d be on TV talking about it the next. It was the way he survived. I really wanted to see a full and complete portrait."
The film traces the path of Pryor’s career, from his early-'60s start as a more conventional comic on variety shows and game shows, to his time on the Vegas circuit, where he realized that he wasn’t being true to himself or the audience he was trying to reach. It then steps through his time in Berkeley, California, in the late '60s, where he found that voice, to his rocket to stardom after the concert album That Nigger’s Crazy came out in 1974, which resulted in a movie career that made him one of the highest-profile stars in Hollywood.
But the thread that is pulled through all of it is the pain that marked his life, manifest in his depression, drug abuse, and trouble maintaining healthy relationships. Sprinkled among the famous people Zenovich spoke to, such as Quincy Jones, Mel Brooks, and Jesse Jackson, are interviews with people he knew at various points in his life, like his Berkeley buddy Cecil Brown and David Banks, who wrote for Pryor’s short-lived NBC sketch comedy show and was a general adviser.
Zenovich tends to make her films independently, so doing a documentary with the assistance of her subject’s estate was a double-edged sword for her. "It’s not the easiest type of film to make," she says. "Although it is a celebration of him, we wanted to go deeper. I mean those are the kinds of films that I make. I mean she’s trying to be protective of him, and I’m trying to get to the bottom of something. So it’s hard but I’m happy with the film. What can I say?"
"I don’t think [Marina] is a great collaborator," says Pryor. "I think it was hard for her. She’s very solo. And when you look at Wanted and Desired, that film does feel solitary, doesn’t it?"
Jennifer Pryor didn’t hesitate to give Zenovich notes throughout the movie’s shooting and editing phases; not only did she suggest people for Zenovich to interview, but Pryor provided footage, audio, and still photos of Richard from various points in his career. Pryor felt that the notes were justified, because she wanted to make sure her husband’s story was properly told.
"This isn’t the first time a producer and director have gone head to head," says Pryor. "Everybody does this thing in documentaries, which is conflating time. I understand the purpose of this. But sometimes you have to tell the damn story in a linear way."
What fascinated Zenovich more than anything was the pain in Pryor’s life. In fact, the movie begins with the fire incident, when in one of Richard Pryor’s darkest, drug-fueled periods, he doused himself in rum and set himself on fire, and then examines the incident in-depth later on in the picture. But in earlier cuts of the film, Zenovich concentrated much more on that and other dark periods of Pryor’s life, and she got some honest feedback from her filmmaker friends.
"We had a screening and everybody, except for one person, thought 'This is too dark,'" she says. "We want to see him and we want to laugh. I’ve never been in a position like that where, because he’s such an icon, people are expecting . . . they come with expectations and that’s a tough position to be in. We just thought, okay, we’ve got to give it to them."
For her part, Jennifer Pryor didn’t think it was fair to define her husband’s life by that incident, no matter how famous it was. "A couple of the early cuts were obsessive about the fire," she says. "That’s a fuckin’ shame. Richard Pryor isn’t about the fire. We’re not pretending all of these dark periods didn’t happen. But it was really dark, almost obsessively dark."
Zenovich took the notes from her colleagues and Pryor to heart. "We started with him performing and mirroring the movie, starting with him on stage [early in his career] and talking about [how] people are coming in from the bathroom. That set the tone. It’s like the comedy’s coming from the pain. So there was this real balance of trying to show that but not go too much into the pain but always having it be there."
Jennifer Pryor also wanted to make sure that the truth of some of her husband’s stories were properly told. For instance, Richard Pryor had a revelation after an early-'80s trip to Africa that led him to the conclusion that he should no longer use the n-word in his act, and that the word was a sign of disrespect, even coming from an African-American artist. Jennifer wasn’t at all happy with how Zenovich told that story in the movie and didn’t hesitate to convey her disappointment to the director.
"It was bad. She conflated it with other trips to Africa, and she had the story coming out of [bodyguard] Rashon [Kahn]'s mouth. Rashon wasn’t there when he had the epiphany; I was with him, in the lobby of the Hilton hotel. It not only had an impact on Richard but on the African-American community itself. It was a very, very big fucking deal. Half of the African-American community thought it was wonderful, and the other half thought he was betraying himself. I was adamant that the story be told the way it happened."
Zenovich used Kahn extensively in the documentary, and Pryor wanted to ensure that the man was represented correctly. She felt Zenovich used him as "almost [like] a narrator" of the documentary and was not very happy that some of Kahn’s other duties—like getting Richard drugs—weren’t discussed. "I confronted her and asked her, 'Why aren’t you telling the truth about who he is?' He was the bodyguard, a bodyguard who didn’t protect Richard when he was beating me up."
"When I was talking to these guys, I thought you don’t want to be a woman with these guys, you want to be a guy," says Zenovich about inner-circle interviewees like Kahn and Brown. "I think the women felt left out. I think people fought for Richard’s attention, whether they were women or children. The guys probably did as well, not necessarily those two guys, but I think it was a lot of fighting over Richard and I think therefore there were different sides that kind of formed."
Though Pryor’s many marriages and other wayward relationships were covered, Jennifer was the only ex-wife who spoke to Zenovich, along with one of his girlfriends. The only one of his six children that would speak was his oldest, Richard Pryor Jr. All Zenovich would say was that they turned her down, but Jennifer, who has been in legal imbroglios with a few of Pryor’s exes, knew exactly why more of his exes and kids didn’t participate.
"One wife wanted $35,000. Another wife wanted $200,000. Do you think that’s realistic? Not on anyone’s fuckin’ budget," she laughs. As for the kids’ participation, Pryor says, "Richard Jr. knew his father better than anybody. The three younger kids didn’t want to participate, and they didn’t know their father anyway. Listen, Richard was a very difficult man, and when he hurt a woman, it was to the core. It was never a happy ending."
After all the push and pull, however, the final cut of the documentary satisfied both Zenovich and Pryor. But both the director and the executive producer agree that the life of Richard Pryor is something that needs more time to be examined.
"What I think it does is it introduces people who don’t know Richard," says Pryor. It’s a basic primer. You’ve got a plethora of material and a paucity of time."
"I mean the Richard Pryor story could be a six-hour miniseries or a two-part documentary," says Zenovich. "I hope that people feel like we gave the story what it deserved. You’re not going to please everyone."