In the history of black filmmaking, “Stir Crazy” is rarely cited as a groundbreaker or an enduring high point. However, Sidney Poitier’s 1980 comedy sold more tickets in North America than “The Fate of the Furious,” or any other film by a black director.
Poitier’s career has included multiple breakout moments. He was the first black lead acting Oscar winner with “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner;” he starred in two blockbuster films in 1967 with “To Sir With Love” (over $300 million, adjusted gross) and “In the Heat of the Night” ($177 million, adjusted gross). He was, more than even Denzel Washington or any other black actor-turned-director, an icon of cinema when he made “Stir Crazy.” And it was this film, more than any other, that found access to all domestic audiences.
That said, it’s a film that doesn’t have the resonance of other historical blockbusters like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music” or “E.T.” However, comedies (“Crocodile Dundee,” “Three Men and a Baby,” “Bruce Almighty”) seem particularly vulnerable to public amnesia. “Stir Crazy” is a prime example of a film that had the elements to hit a nerve, but perhaps not for immortality.
Poitier began his directing career when black cinema was on the rise in the early ’70s with breakouts like Gordon Parks’ “Shaft,” lower-budgeted blaxploitation efforts like “Super Fly,” and Pam Grier vehicles like “Coffy” and “Black Mama White Mama.” However, Poitier quietly used his position as one of the celebrity partners at Warner Bros. subsidiary First Artists to pursue a career shift. He remade himself as a director of films aimed primarily at black audiences who wanted more than violent, R-rated crime stories.
Poitier made “Stir Crazy” for Columbia Pictures; it was the sixth film he’d directed in nine years, and the first in which he didn’t star. His previous three films, starting with “Uptown Saturday Night,” were inner-city caper comedies in which he starred opposite Bill Cosby. For “Stir Crazy” he cast Richard Pryor, who was coming on strong after “The Wiz” and “Which Way Is Up?”, shared screenplay credit on “Blazing Saddles,” and had the groundbreaking success of “Richard Pryor: Live In Concert.” But Pryor’s biggest hit came starring opposite Gene Wilder in 1976’s “Silver Streak.” This gave him the biggest exposure to non-black audiences, and an adjusted gross is $224 million — extremely high in any era for a comedy.
“Stir Crazy” reunited him with Wilder, but unlike Poitier’s earlier comedies, it had an R rating. It featured the pair as out-of-work actors heading to Los Angeles who make an impromptu attempt at bank robbery — which leads to prison sentences that turn out to be the best thing that could happen to them.
It had a much rougher edge than Poitier’s earlier films and received a key Christmas slot — at that point, unique among films from black directors. The result proved to be the number-three film released in 1980, behind “The Empire Strikes Back” and “9 to 5.”
“Stir Crazy,” which was the original screenwriting debut of novelist Bruce Jay Friedman, worked with multiple comedy tropes: the fish out of water (two New York actors sentenced to an Arizona prison after a bank robbery gone bad), the unlikely comic duo, and the enduring popularity of infantilism,Black as evidenced by the long careers of Laurel and Hardy, Jerry Lewis and currently Adam Sandler. Its mostly outdoor southwestern setting and goofy feel recalled Clint Eastwood’s surprise hit two years earlier, “Every Which Way But Loose” (there, the infant was an orangutan). All that, and the reteaming of two established stars.
Something seemed to be in the air that Christmas. December 1980 came after an intensely fought presidential race, with the Iran hostage crisis still unresolved and elevated economic concerns. History shows that periods of political transition often twin with the need to laugh at the movies, and this season was phenomenal. “Stir Crazy,” along with “9 to 5” and Eastwood sequel “Any Which Way You Can,” comes to a stunning $900 million in adjusted grosses. To put that in context, the biggest-grossing, live-action, pure comedy release last year was “Ghostbusters” at $128 million. The biggest grossing comedy last Christmas was “Why Him,” which ended up with $60 million.
All that said, today “Stir Crazy” often is not the first film associated with Poitier, Pryor or Wilder, although it also proved to be the final major hit in their collective careers. And, much like F. Gary Gray’s “The Fate of the Furious,” the director’s race wasn’t central to the film itself. It was an early sign of normalization that, decades later, still isn’t the norm.