In the autobiography, "Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences (1997)", Richard Pryor states that he " . . . never connected with Eddie [Murphy]. People talked about how my work had influenced Eddie, and perhaps it did. But I always thought Eddie's comedy was mean. I used to say, "Eddie, be a little nice" and that would piss him off . . . I finished [Harlem Nights (1989)] thinking that Eddie didn't like me".
According to Gabi Tartakovsky's 7th June 2011 article "Harlem Nights (1989): Eddie Murphy and the Original Gangsters of Black Comedy" at the Pop Matters website, "[Richard] Pryor's toning down the Sugar Ray character wasn't scripted as such, and Pryor believed his performance was the result of being bothered with a recent Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, which he kept to himself at the time".
By his own admission, Eddie Murphy felt that he didn't dedicate enough thought or care to the directing of his debut. He was more concerned at the time with figuring out where the next party was going to be.
This film was made because Eddie Murphy always wanted to direct and act in a period piece. Moreover, Murphy had always wanted to work with Richard Pryor whom Murphy had considered to be the greatest influence on his work in stand-up comedy.
On the opening date of this film at the AMC Americana 8, a theater in Southfield, Michigan (on the border of Detroit), a patron shot and wounded two people inside the theater, before being killed by police officers in the parking lot. This led to the first ever movie theater in the world to install permanent metal detectors, which passing through were required for entry.
The story of white mobster Bugsy Calhoune trying to take over Sugar Ray's night club in order to control black Harlem is loosely inspired by the real feud between white gangster Dutch Schultz and his war with black gangster Bumpy Johnson over control of Harlem's lucrative "numbers" gambling rackets in the mid 1930's.
"Harlem Nights" was also the working title for Ralph Bakshi's film, Coonskin (1975). Both films feature the crime racket in Harlem as a plot point. Star Richard Pryor was also believed to be a fan of Coonskin (1975).
The earlier Eddie Murphy movie from Paramount Pictures, 48 Hrs. (1982) was, during the late 1970s, originally designed as a vehicle for Richard Pryor as the con (with Clint Eastwood as the cop). The picture, then in development at Columbia Pictures, went into turnaround for a time, and didn't go back into development for another couple of years, where it re-surfaced at Paramount, the studio which had a near-total monopoly on Murphy movies during the 1980s, and this included both 48 Hrs. (1982) and Harlem Nights (1989).
The movie's soundtrack featured seven classic tracks by legendary African American pianist, composer, and jazz-orchestrator Duke Ellington. The tunes, written or co-written by Ellington, were "Black Beauty", "Mood Indigo", "Take The 'A' Train", "The Gal From Joe's", "Sophisticated Lady", "Drop Me Off In Harlem", and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)".
The film was made and released about fifty-one years after its main time period in which it was set, which was 1938. Briefly during the start of the picture, the movie is set at the start twenty years earlier, in 1918, about seventy-one years prior to when the movie was made and released.