The Underrated, Classic Buddy Comedy ‘Life’ Turns 21 Today

Back on this date in 1999, a film was released that many weren’t expecting, and some still couldn’t digest years afterward. Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, and directed by Ted Demme from a story written by Murphy, Life told the story of two unfortunate souls from different backgrounds who find themselves caught up in a mess based on being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color.

The dramedy spans 65 years in the lives of Ray Gibson and Claude Banks. Murphy and Lawrence are two New Yorkers from Harlem in 1932. One is a hustler and a petty thief while the other, played by Martin Lawrence, is an honest albeit selfish individual who recently accepted a job as a bank teller.

Gibson looks to prey upon Claude, who he has already labeled as a mark, but the resulting commotion finds them in the bad graces of club owner and local gangster Spanky, played by the late Rick James.

To get out of their collective bind that he caused, Ray volunteers himself and Claude to go on a bootleg liquor run to make up for it. As a viewer, I recall being filled with trepidation when it was mentioned in the film that the liquor run would take them to Mississippi.

Indeed, it was easy to surmise what was going to happen next without having any knowledge of the script, especially from a black perspective. It was the reality of mass incarceration, chain gangs and Jim Crow that filled the engaged viewer with fear of what was to occur.

Eventually, the shoe dropped on our protagonists as they’re framed for the murder of a local card shark by the town sheriff. They are tried, convicted and sentenced to life in a very short span.

In the camp, they spend the next 65 years of their lives trying to escape a fate that was not meant for them.

Among the personalities, they came across at the prison were Biscuit, played by Miguel A. Nunez Jr, Jangle Leg (Bernie Mac), Radio (Guy Torry), Can’t Get Right (Bokeem Woodbine) and Cookie (Anthony Anderson).

Much of the rest of the film dealt with their friendship, their disagreements, and their almost never-ending quest to escape from the correctional facility.

Although it had two of the biggest names in comedy on the bill, “Life” only made about $73 million at the box office off of a production budget of $80 million, which is considered a flop. Additionally, many in the mainstream media did not see the sense in placing these two comedy geniuses in cinematic circumstances that were depressing by their very nature. They didn’t get what was supposed to be so funny about prison and racism, but to many black folks, these are everyday norms.

One could consider the motions of Claude and Ray to be indicative of the real-life struggles of black men in America.

In the film, whenever there was a chance that justice would be served, it is snatched away by circumstance, such as when Superintendent Wilkins, played by Ned Beatty, is minutes from issuing them a pardon when he suffers a fatal heart attack.

Or when Can’t Get Right leaves for the Negro League after giving the two some hope that he would be their ticket out, which causes a split between the two that lasts 30 years, despite being in the same facility.

One factor that is apparent based upon the ending, which found the duo escaping and enjoying a game at Yankee Stadium in their 80s, is that hope is a most necessary commodity when it comes to overcoming any obstacle. Filled with laughs and moments of melancholy, “Life” remains an underappreciated classic 21 years later.

Back to top