Black goes mainstream with a commercial trendsetter of great cultural significance
Beverly Hills Cop would set a precedent for black action stars, but it almost didn’t happen. In 1984, Eddie Murphy was the hottest stand-up act on the planet following the release of Delirious, a 1983 HBO special that pushed the boundaries of race and sexuality, taking the mantle from Richard Pryor and careening over the proverbial canyon. Like his predecessor and idol, Murphy’s act was more than a barrage of expletives and crude analysis, tackling such issues as Reaganomics — which had a hugely negative financial impact on low-income minorities — the war on drugs and the rising AIDS epidemic, but when your 70-minute act features 230 uses of the word Fuck, you’re hardly likely to win over a mainstream dominated by white, middle class Americans.
Had it not been for Prior’s ability to make his groundbreakingly risqué act palatable for mainstream audiences, Murphy may not have had such a blockbuster career, but the man had star power in abundance, was able to transfer his street-smart persona to the silver screen with incredible fluidity. Taking inspiration from his increasingly popular stand-up act, the star would receive two consecutive Golden Globe nominations, the first for his astonishing debut as the fast-talking Reggie Hammond in Walter Hill’s groundbreaking buddy movie 48Hrs — a film that would set the template for black and white pairings going forward — and then as Billy Ray Valentine in John Landis’ charming Reagan-era take on ‘The Prince and the Pauper’, Trading Places. Murphy excelled as the black con outsmarting white characters of stupidity and privilege, but he was still the black man playing second fiddle, sharing the marquee with established white actors and portraying likeable characters who were ultimately crooks.
Beverly Hills Cop changed all that, casting Murphy in a manner that would open all kinds of doors for African-American leads in mainstream Hollywood. The early 80s was a testing time for African-Americans in the US, the infamous ‘crack pandemic’ altering the black community, and America’s perceptions of it, irrevocably. The sheer quantity of cocaine landing on US shores — something the government turned a blind eye to during the Iran–Contra affair — meant that the drug, once exclusive to the country’s elite, plummeted in price, becoming readily available in a cheap, more addictive form. Addiction destroyed families and led to an upturn in inner city crime, but rather than being treated as victims, poverty-stricken black communities were demonised and ultimately criminalised. As far as the mainstream media was concerned, working class blacks were either no-good addicts or criminals who were running the country into the ground.
Some early shots of a run-down Detroit, Foley’s home turf, capture that sense of destitution. The film’s opening paints a moribund picture of a city ravaged by industrial and sociological decline — the antithesis of Murphy’s tinsel town destination. It’s interesting, perhaps a little cynical, that Beverly Hills Cop emerged in the midst of America’s crack ‘pandemic’, but smart-mouthed Detroit cop Axel Foley is hardly a whitewashed version of black America. In fact, Murphy stayed as true to his stand-up act as Hollywood allowed, giving us a mildly-tweaked variation of those previous characters. Instead of a jailbird or a panhandling conman, he’s a roguish cop with the streets in his blood, a marquee good guy playing second fiddle to absolutely nobody. Beverly Hills Cop is light on plot, taking an obvious fish out of water concept and plunging Murphy into a series of scenarios that cater to his real-life persona, and to its credit. The action genre is full of vehicles designed specifically for star actors, but Murphy is this movie. Without him, there’s barely one to speak of in a traditional sense.
Axel Foley: I was gonna call the article “Michael Jackson Is Sitting On Top of the World,” but now I think I might as well just call it “Michael Jackson Can Sit On Top of the World Just As Long As He Doesn’t Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel ‘Cause There’s No Niggers Allowed in There!”
Ironically, the part was originally meant for ‘Italian Stallion’ Sylvester Stallone, the kind of musclebound white actor who dominated the genre back in the mid-1980s. Stallone had already been accused of trying to whitewash history with his Oscar nominated screenplay Rocky, a rags to riches tale inspired by ‘great white hope’ Chuck Wepner, an underdog who went 15 rounds with world champion Muhammad Ali on March 24, 1975, even knocking him down in the ninth before losing to TKO. “I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring,” Ali would later claim. “America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.”
Stallone was so beset on catering Beverly Hills Cop to his own musclebound image that he subjected the original screenplay to a heavy makeover that ditched the comedy element for a straight-up action flick, renaming the Foley character Axel Cobretti, a surname that will sound familiar to any action junkie worth their salt. But Stallone’s lavish projections didn’t sit well with those at Paramount, leading the actor to quit and pursue other projects. Two years later he would sign a deal with Golan-Globus, a cavalier production company with equally lavish tastes who would offer the star unprecedented fees as they looked to crack the mainstream. Stallone would star in two Golan-Globus productions, washing his hands with the company after huge commercial misfire Over the Top, though his first movie for the Cannon Group would make $160,000,000 worldwide in conjunction with distributor giants Warner Brothers. Cobra would feature a protagonist named Marion Cobretti, a vigilante in the Charles Bronson mode who flew the flag for Reaganite America. Cobra is the closest thing to Stallone’s proposed version of Beverly Hills Cop we are ever likely to get.
After several scripts, a whole series of screenwriters and investment that had already reached the $2,000,000 mark, production was back to square one and floundering until producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer convinced Murphy to take the role, which was a big ask back in 1984. Black protagonists were nothing new in the mid-1980s, but rarely were they the marquee attraction, particularly in the realms of mainstream Hollywood, where big money typically meant adhering to certain conventions. The prospect of an African-American lead in a mainstream action vehicle meant potentially alienating certain sections of the white demographic. Unenlightened folk weaned on a casual diet of racial discrimination were unlikely to accept an average-build black guy as a hero they could get behind, particularly when that hero openly mocked their ignorance.
Before Murphy, black action stars had mostly played second fiddle. They assumed the same patriotic guise but were typically portrayed as less intelligent, subservient and generally inferior. They were accepted as good guys against races who were even more alien, but were invariably tied to the white alpha male’s quasi-oppressive leash. In 1985, African-American sidekick Steve James demanded that his American Ninja dialogue be altered due to asinine lines such as “no problem, whatever you say, partner.” A bona fide badass with a million-dollar smile, James had all the prerequisites for an action lead in an industry steeped in prejudice but would never fulfil his true potential. Blaxploitation would briefly flirt with the mainstream back in the 1970s (you know who I’m talking about, and you can dig it), but it would be years before black made its presence felt in a broader sense, and in many ways Murphy was the trigger.
Beverly Hills Cop tells the story of a wise-ass Detroit detective who takes a pseudo-vacation in Beverly Hills to avenge the death of his childhood friend. There he meets fellow cops Sgt. Taggart (John Ashton) and Judge Reinhold’s Detective Billy Rosewood, the three becoming lifelong pals against all expectation. It’s interesting that the screenplay introduces two white sidekicks as opposed to one. Foley is portrayed as their professional superior, the two made to look foolish while tailing him thanks to the kind of cocksure antics that don’t play in the land of America’s affluent elite, but he rarely condescends to them directly. Rather than having a character like Taggart playing second fiddle, the role of joker goes to Rosewood, here playing the harmless child in the equation. In reality, he wouldn’t last a day on the mean streets of anywhere, but his endearingly kooky behaviour is above any serious condescension. In fact, it is Taggart’s unwillingness to break the rules that typically becomes the butt of the joke, Axel playing the infectious liberator who unbuttons stuffed shirts with a charisma very few actors possess.
The movie could have gone the obvious route and given Foley a partner who better suited Murphy’s ‘uptight white man’ schtick (something reserved for a white-acting black cop who replaces Rosewood and Taggert after Foley has given them the slip), but Taggart is hardly a stickler for the rules, more a loyal servant, a point quickly made during a priceless scene in which he loses his rag and subjects Foley to a stiff gut punch, a sentiment Axel typically shrugs off. Ultimately, it’s an old school attitude, the kind being put out to pasture, that unites the two. Foley is flabbergasted when Ronny Cox’s Lieutenant Andrew Bogomil, an academy friend of Taggart’s, asks if he’d like to press assault charges. Again, Bogomil isn’t an asshole, he’s simply following the rules, but those rules will have to be broken if they’re to bring the film’s antagonist to justice.
Sergeant Taggart: Why didn’t you identify yourself as a police officer when you were arrested?
Axel Foley: ‘Cause I was mindin’ my own business. Hey, where the fuck do you guys get off on arresting somebody for getting thrown out of a window?
Sergeant Taggart: We have six witnesses that say you broke in and started tearing up the place, then jumped out the window!
Axel Foley: And you guys believe that? What the fuck are you, cops or doormen?
Sergeant Taggart: We’re more likely to believe an important local businessman than a foul-mouthed jerk from out of town.
Axel Foley: Foul-mouthed?
Axel Foley: Fuck you, man.
Octopussy‘s Steven Berkoff was born to play a villain, and as Victor Maitland, a cold and calculated snake protected by a wall of white privilege, he revels in a smug opulence that is the complete antithesis of Foley’s relatable everyman. A gallery owner with friends in high places who’s able to run drugs under the nose of the law, Maitland knows exactly which of Foley’s buttons to push, and how to use colour and class to his advantage. In Beverly Hills, it’s who you know and how much money and influence you have, and Maitland is a white God to Foley’s black peasant, a respected member of the community who forces his pursuer to fulfil every last ethnic stereotype. There’s a priceless moment when Maitland has Foley tossed through a plate glass window. When the police arrive, it’s Axel who ends up in cuffs, the two officers swallowing Maitland’s unlikely story that an uncouth outsider broke into his property, went crazy, and leapt through the plate glass window himself. If this wasn’t a movie, you have to believe they’d have stuck the boot in too.
Also notable is Beverly Hills Cop‘s lack of a traditional love interest. It was rare to see black and white sexual relations in 1984, unless those relations tackled themes of prejudice. An action comedy like Beverly Hills Cop doesn’t have time or incentive for such narrative complexities, but even after black action leads became more commonplace, they were typically paired with a woman of corresponding ethnicity. Beverly Hills Cop doesn’t attempt to squeeze in a white love interest, or even a black one. The movie’s eye candy comes in the form of long-time Foley friend Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher), a character whose position is platonic from the offset. This doesn’t hurt Axel. If anything, it makes him appear even more genuine, further delineating him from muscles-to-burn stars who typically used women as accessories to their cartoon heroics, but it certainly goes against Hollywood convention. Perhaps America wasn’t quite ready for that yet.
But for all the talk of racial advancements, change doesn’t come easy, and Foley’s character was just as guilty of discrimination, as was the actor who portrayed him. Times change, as do our attitudes and tolerance for different issues, and there are moments in Beverly Hills Cop that haven’t aged well, a scene in which Foley interrupts Maitland’s lunch at an exclusive restaurant while pretending to be a gay fling with news of a venereal disease particularly jarring. One of Murphy’s most controversial stand-up bits, something he now admits to regretting, was his ruthless mocking of the homosexual community, who had already been demonised thanks to the AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s. If America wasn’t ready for racial equality in movies, just imagine their feelings toward a gay community accused of spreading the late-20th century’s equivalent of the plague. Even some of the more liberal-minded were motivated entirely by fear when it came to the subject of homosexuality.
Beverly Hills Cop also features an openly gay character who was initially written in a way that was just as disparaging, though actor Bronson Pinchot, who portrayed flamboyant art dealer Serge, took matters into his own hands, creating one of the most endearing comedy support characters in action cinema. Pinchot would say of his influence on the role, “[Serge] was just the gay shop boy who Eddie’s character just hammered. In the script he was this period set-piece from the ’80s of ‘now we bash the gay character,’ and I, without mentally or consciously planning to, made it into not ‘we bash,’ but ‘we play with.’ Possibly that’s why it made such an impact, because I think you would never look at that character and say, well, now we’re going to bash him, which was perfectly acceptable in 1984, 1985. He seemed like, ‘We’re going to have fun, and you’re going to accept me as a person.'”
Back then, gay characters were often subjected to the kind of derision that was borderline hateful. It wasn’t a conscious effort for the most part, merely a reflection of the feelings, attitudes and accepted norms of a specific time and place. Those were different times, and almost everything becomes a source of outrage in hindsight — that’s the nature of continued enlightenment. Whether or not it was the screenplay’s initial intention, the Serge character proved a step in the right direction. He’s little more than an absurd stereotype, a zesty accomplice for Murphy to bounce off, but we weren’t manipulated into ridicule. Cinema has since come a long way in that regard, and today his scenes may have the capacity to offend, but his character was deserving of our affection in a way that wasn’t condescending by 1984’s standards.
Since Beverly Hills Cop was in development long before Murphy bagged the role that would immortalise him in action circles, and since the Foley character was originally meant for an Italian-American, the screenplay initially focused on class rather than race or sexuality. Future Oscar-nominated writer Daniel Petrie Jr. was recruited to give Beverly Hills Cop its comic edge, and in a 2014 interview with Esquire he would explain how his idea came about. “I saw Beverly Hills Cop more as a comedy just because I had been a starving writer living and working in Beverly Hills, so I had the experience of walking down the street thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll stop in here and get a tie. Oh wait, it’s $4,000.’ It seemed like a cop from a blue-collar area would be so struck with amusement about Beverly Hills and all the pretentiousness, that some great fish-out-of-water comedy could be mined from that.”
Victor Maitland: Now listen to me, my tough little friend. I don’t know from under what stone you crawled, or where you get these ridiculous ideas about me, but it seems painfully obvious you haven’t the slightest fucking idea who you’re dealing with. Now, my advice to you is crawl back to your little stone in Detroit before you get squashed.
It was only after Murphy’s inclusion that race became the film’s most prominent theme, which is why we’re still talking about this movie so affectionately all these years later. Without Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop could have easily descended into generic, forgettable territory, becoming yet another footnote in an oversaturated sub-genre. Since race and class are typically one and the same, a feeling heightened during Reagan’s free market assault and his failed trickle-down economics policy, Murphy’s racial overtones came naturally. Brest and Petrie Jr. weren’t overly impressed with the final script, encouraging Murphy to add his own comedic flourishes, and he was so good they ultimately constituted the majority of the film. Whenever Murphy dives into a spirited Axel Foley monologue it’s pretty much his own doing, and that’s when Beverly Hills Cop is at its best.
Murphy is pure joy during a series of skits that mock white privilege more directly, particularly when he bags himself an affluent hotel suite masquerading as a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. Foley often comes up against affluent, arrogant or entitled characters who are made to look foolish thanks to his superior morals and sense of everyman humility. Crucially, Foley doesn’t come across as judgemental or odiously self-righteous. Everything is harmless fun and games until the time comes to kick some ass, and though comedy is clearly Murphy’s forte and the reason why the Axel character works so well, he’s just as adept at portraying a believable tough guy. The moment when Foley confronts Maitland in a restaurant full of high-class associates, making a fool out of his henchman after tossing him onto a buffet of food, displays a seriousness that belies his comedic sensibilities. Maitland shrugs off Foley’s actions like a snob wiping dirt off his designer heel, but Foley’s determination never falters.
Murphy’s pugnacious pursuit of Maitland following his friend’s cold-bloodied execution for sticking his hands in the villain’s proverbial till is so endearing. Murphy may be fun and games for the most part, but you empathise with his frustrations. You believe he can take down an insulated cartel almost single-handed and that justice will prevail — not corporate, white-collar justice, but old school, street justice buoyed by old-time moralities. Axel empowers not only people of colour, but the downtrodden in general. He flaunts his blue-collar hi-jinks in the faces of those who hide behind airs and graces, who manipulate human preconception as a shield for flagrant hypocrisy. He may be thuggish and uncouth in the eyes of high society, but he has heart and soul in abundance, and we, the audience, take great pleasure from identifying with that.
It should be noted that the Axel character benefits from one of the most, if not THE most memorable signature theme songs ever created in synth maestro Harold Faltermeyer’s ‘Axel F’. With contributions from Glenn Frey, whose equally filmic ‘The Heat is On’ would mirror one of the movie’s taglines, The Pointer Sisters, Shalamar and Patti LaBelle, Beverly Hills Cop benefits from a memorable soundtrack in general, but it was Faltermeyer’s international smash that truly captured the essence of the Foley character, a punchy, fist-pumping synth assault that built tension and added an extra layer of dynamism to Murphy’s performance. When you hear the bass building to those sleuthy synth highs, Murphy cautiously approaching a potential clue or agitator, it grabs you absolutely, becoming a directorial tool of the highest order. It’s somewhat ironic that Murphy’s signature track was composed by a white German.
Murphy may be the main man, the star performer the film was built around, but Brest’s innovative action comedy benefits from a superlative cast of veteran actors, each given just the right amount of screen time. The way a plethora of actors are handled, and how much they make of it, is another of Beverly Hills Cop‘s key strengths. Billy’s kid-with-a-badge and Taggart’s reluctant curmudgeon, both ultimately inspired by Foley, are the obvious ones, Murphy, Ashton and Reinhold displaying the kind of chemistry that makes the movie so much more than a star vehicle.
Inspector Douglas Todd : Listen Axel, no more of these set ups, you understand? You’re a good cop, and you got great potential, but you don’t know every fucking thing. And I’m tired of taking the heat for your ass. One more time and you’re out on the street. Do you understand me?
Equally endearing is Cox’s Bogomil, a level-headed character who Foley would ultimately avenge in Tony Scott’s ultra-violent sequel Beverly Hills Cop 2. Maitland is a divinely risible crook, but there’s also a formidable turn from Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks as a dead-eyed goon embroiled in a very personal vendetta. Back in Detroit there’s reliable support from future Aliens star Paul Reiser as Foley’s precinct buddy and, perhaps my favourite of all, former real-life cop and future Detroit politician Gil Hill as Inspector Douglas Todd. Todd isn’t the kind of belligerent boss who were ten to the penny in the wake of the Dirty Harry series. He’s Foley’s most vocal critic, and he takes absolutely no shit, but he’s also a reluctant father figure, a man whose anger is never less than earnest. Despite his relatively sparse screen time, some of the most touching moments in the series come from the Axel/Todd dynamic. For me, he’s one of the most memorable minor characters of the era.
Beverly Hills Cop may be a comedy platform first and foremost, but it doesn’t skimp on the action. In fact, the movie is surprisingly violent, particularly the ruthless assassination of Foley’s huckster friend and a prerequisite showdown that admittedly feels just a little complacent. Brest’s blend of action/comedy is no doubt innovative, but it does have its issues, and they mostly involve tone. For example, though he no doubt steals the show during the film’s shootout finale, a juvenile character like Rosewood belongs nowhere near such a relentless bloodbath. While 48 Hrs was a little more rough and ready comedically, better complementing the violence, Beverly Hills Cop‘s more playful approach can be a little jarring amid so much death and destruction. The action genre would continue to evolve following Murphy’s breakout lead role, and with movies such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard, action/comedy would become more refined. This leaves Beverly Hills Cop feeling just a little dated at times.
Beverly Hills Cop is still superlative action comedy. Murphy was such a breath of fresh air in 1984, a magnetic presence made for the silver screen, his transition to believable action star one of the smoothest the industry has ever witnessed. A Detroit smart ass in the midst of an affluent Beverly Hills is a simple yet inspired concept that plays directly to Murphy’s strengths, but it was still an incredible achievement from a relative silver screen rookie, and arguably the defining role of his entire Hollywood run. The film may fall short of masterwork status, but the margins are slim, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a mainstream action vehicle as fun as this, or as influential. The characters and camaraderie are a joy to behold, and the film has such energy. It has a joyous vibe, a timeless feelgood quality that outweighs all notions of outmoded themes and attitudes. Every time the credits roll it reminds me of summer.
Most importantly, Beverly Hills Cop forges one of the most memorable mainstream characters of the era, one whose cultural importance and impact on mainstream Hollywood cannot be underestimated. Time may have passed the movie by in some respects, but for a generation of budding African-American actors Beverly Hills Cop is a landmark film, a banana in the tailpipe for the Hollywood status quo, and arguably the most significant action movie of its era.