Eddie Murphy is one of the most famous comedians in Hollywood today. For people born from 2000 and on, Eddie Murphy might be seen as the goofy guy who makes family films. To those who were kids during the 2000s, you might have heard him star in animated films as Donkey from Shrek and Mushu from Mulan. But he actually rose to fame through Saturday Night Live, for which he was a regular cast member during the ‘80s. He was even considered as one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all time.
However, Eddie Murphy is more than a comedian – he’s a cultural figure in America. Here’s how Murphy influenced pop culture:
He is a pioneer for black comedy actors.
Eddie Murphy’s early roles in films were the prototype of the hip, irreverent, awkward character for Black comedic actors. One could argue that Will Smith’s comedic roles, especially in the early seasons of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” was a hip-hop/’90s version of the type of characters Murphy portrayed early in his career.
Murphy was always the guy who doesn’t quite belong, but is comfortable in his own skin and always finds a way out of trouble. Not only is Will Smith a direct comedic descendant of the Murphy legacy, but one could look at Martin Lawrence’s career, Chris Tucker’s films and Kevin Hart’s roles – and you will see Murphy’s influence there.
He showed that black people can play the hero.
While this might sound pretty common and unremarkable today, during the early ‘80s when Murphy rose to prominence, there were not a lot of black comedians or comedy actors who get to be the hero. Black actors usually play the best friend or the comedic sidekick, but never the hero. On top of that, how many black comedic actors at that time got to play multi-dimensional roles – like being bold, funny, brash, cool, and slightly vulgar at the same time? Not a lot. In many ways, Murphy is one of the first of his kind of actors in Hollywood.
He helped change mainstream movies, one hit at a time.
Murphy had a shot at fame as a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” often creating controversial characters like convict Tyrone Green, pimp Velvet Jones, and the angry Gumpy. Soon after, he was off and running in a series of hit mainstream movies. He made audiences welcome a tough-talking, iconoclastic, profane African American comedian.
Murphy has this broad grin and popping eyes that made his characterization border on caricature, but nonetheless, moviegoers loved his assertiveness, bodacious confidence and refusal to be racially submissive. These characteristics added a different dimension to his every character. His appeal is in his brash confidence, adding a new kind of twist to a formulaic old-style Hollywood films he has been in.
He showed that actors can reinvent themselves.
Interestingly enough, Eddie Murphy did not have a significant, romantic love interest in most of his movies. But his appeal is enough to thrust him into the superstar category. While it seemed like he settled into a career in broad comedic roles, he released a film that displayed the full potential of his charisma as a romantic leading man. And the way his new persona was received might be the key to understanding the subsequent arc of his career.
“Boomerang” (1992) is Eddie Murphy’s only foray into the true romantic comedy genre. It’s also one of the few films in which he plays a normal guy, as he channeled Cary Grant. He was still hilarious in the film, but in a much more low-key, naturalistic way.
His lead romantic leading man role in “Boomerang” gave Murphy a different, more three-dimensional role than the typical explosive performances that made him a blockbuster star. The film was underrated, but it’s a cultural icon and part of the black American collective consciousness. It would prove that actors, though they are well-known in a specific genre – can reinvent their public persona.
He showed the ability to hold yourself accountable and grow.
Celebrities can’t escape the perception the public forms of them. Murphy knows that well, but he knows how to humble himself and take responsibilities for their mistakes.
You can’t reflect on Murphy’s early career and ignore the problematic jokes in his work, but during an era where so many entertainers are quick to dodge responsibility by criticizing the ills of political correctness, Murphy was able to simply say “I was wrong” and acknowledge the mistakes of his youth.