Eddie Murphy is back.
It has been 12 years since his Academy Award-nominated turn in Dreamgirls, and Oscar buzz is swirling around him once again for his lead role in the forthcoming Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name. After several years of box office duds and sequels, it seems Murphy is in the midst of a creative resurgence. But like any modern redemption story, this new round of acclaim comes packaged with new scrutiny about his comedic past.
In a recent New York Times profile, he beat everyone else to the punch, expressing regret about some of his old material, in which he made homophobic jokes and mused about contracting AIDS from kissing gay men. He called these old routines “ignorant” and seemed genuinely remorseful.
So, it seems like a done deal, right? His candor and vulnerability are refreshing. Not to mention, they stand in stark contrast to fellow comedian Kevin Hart, who begrudgingly apologized for old homophobic tweets after being publicly shamed into doing so. There’s no controversy here – it’s time to move on.
But it’s not so easy. We live in an era where no element of a public figure’s past is off limits, regardless of how old it is. In recent weeks, Shane Gillis lost his spot at SNL after old podcast clips resurfaced in which he used racist slurs against Asians and homophobic language. Today, old tweets seem to kill more comedians’ careers than bad jokes. Cancel culture is ruthless, and everything a celebrity has ever said, recorded, or posted is fair game for dissection.
In today’s culture wars, there’s no statute of limitations, there’s no patience for nuance, and there’s no room for forgiveness. But Murphy deserves a more empathetic approach.
While some of his old material certainly doesn’t stand up in the face of today’s cultural standards, we have to consider that these aren’t dirty little secrets buried in his Twitter archives. The jokes in question are part of two legendary comedy specials – Delirious and Raw – that are essentially the blueprint for many of today’s black comedians. These are publicly available works that have always been there for us to watch, and watch we have, holding them up as the beacon of great comedy.
Murphy’s humor and comedic style are so ingrained in today’s comedians that, even if we hypothetically canceled him, we could never erase his influence.
We should also consider that Murphy hasn’t waited for us to dig anything up – he hasn’t been caught red-handed. He’s apologized before, and he apologized now, without being prodded. He offers a rare portrait of a male public figure who can admit wrongdoing. He’s displaying a layered masculinity that leaves room for personal accountability and growth. To still push for a cancellation would be cruel, and it would suggest that there’s no right way to redeem yourself for past wrongs.
And, turning the lens around on us, so much of internet age activism is about in-the-moment rage. It’s about the act of cancellation – the memes, the Twitter dragging. But it’s rarely about the resolution. One would imagine that the ultimate goal of cancellation is a step forward. The canceled person should show remorse and make an effort to do better in the future. If we achieve that outcome, what purpose is served by harping on their past?
When I think about Eddie Murphy – his legacy, his missteps, and his current moment of critical embrace – the only option I see is to join in on the applause. Through his hard work on and off screen, he has shown how much he’s grown. We can’t play the cancellation card here. We have no choice but to do something even more radical – forgive him.