By the time LIFE premiered on his birthday in April of 1999, Martin Lawrence had earned his cachet as a certified movie star. He’d successfully helmed a self-titled sitcom to rave reviews and sturdy syndication. He’d played a demanding role opposite Will Smith, another '90s film juggernaut, in Bad Boys, a franchise that’s also endured past its release date. He had even come back from a tumultuous low, when his name was in tabloids for bizarre behavior and admitted substance abuse. Free of social media scrutiny, Lawrence dodged harassment critique from Martin castmates and glided into comedy blockbusters like he wasn’t meant to stay on the small screen for long. When the Claude Banks role in LIFE came along, Lawrence was facing a career crossroads, and the film lit an obvious path for him to pursue strong lead characters with equally potent ensemble performers alongside him.
In the same year, Eddie Murphy seized on the Ray Gibson role he’d created in the original story for LIFE, co-starring with Lawrence for the first time since their early '90s cult classic Boomerang. Although both men were renowned comedians, in the years between those flicks, Lawrence’s star power had grown to match Murphy’s. While Murphy had enjoyed a late '80s moment in the Hollywood sun, his reputation as a big lead may have suffered from the erratic choices of his peak period where box office duds like Vampire in Brooklyn and Bowfinger battled against his more beloved voice roles in animated features like Shrek and Mulan.
Each performer had logged a stand-up hit (for Lawrence, it was You So Crazy and for Murphy, it was a toss-up between Raw and Delirious) that proved their range as antic storytellers, masters of physical comedy and virtuoso jokesters who could improvise better lines than scripted. So, the LIFE formula for success wasn’t a far leap: They could be an MJ and Scottie type duo (or a LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) once placed in the right vehicle.
But LIFE wasn’t a runaway hit in 1999. And it didn’t lead to more poignant, challenging duo work with Lawrence and Murphy. With a $75 million budget, it may have seemed like a slam dunk for audiences, but it grossed just $73 million at the box office. No small change, but certainly not the return studios expect when they pay eight-figure salaries to two of the most recognized comedians ever. (LIFE isn’t even in the top 100 box office comedies, all-time, despite mass marketing and positive press.)
Regardless of the shortfall, Murphy and Lawrence crafted LIFE into a classic film with their performances. They laid out invaluable truths about friendship, incarceration, hope, intimacy and truth in a work that may have earned more accolades now. LIFE is a movie for the present-day more than it is one for 1999 because we’re re-assessing criminal justice, masculinity, identity and Blackness in a conversation that couldn’t be had when those two stars were at their highest heights.
But LIFE fell short for one reason: it was too honest.
Good friendships bank on honesty.
That’s what my best friend for 20 years answered when I asked him what the key was to a lasting friendship. The way he explained it made sense but then I also realized I’d never been honest about the level of patience he would would need to stay my friend. When we got to breaking down LIFE, the word honesty came up often because Lawrence and Murphy’s characters fell backwards into a friendship forged in adverse conditions and discovered honesty through mutual struggle. That’s how my friendship with Anwar has grown and blossomed: from circumstantial kinship to lifelong dedication and grace.
Ten years after LIFE came out, Anwar told me he was getting married. I had a girlfriend then the same way I have a girlfriend now, and the idea of either of us getting married wasn’t real to me. We were too young. We had too many international adventures to conquer. We had movies to write and parties to crash. Still, he invited me to Negril, Jamaica, where the wedding would be. I begged my then-girlfriend to come with and she agreed as part of our usual makeup-to-breakup routine.
“If you’re paying for my ticket, I don’t see a reason not to.” I asked and she gave her honest reply.
Anwar didn’t want to choose a best man, so he didn’t have one. His modest beachside wedding was non-traditional in so many other ways that there was no reason to keep the format to secure some cliched speech from a high school friend. He wanted a humble, honest ceremony. I almost ruined it with my clumsy, selfish friendship. One of our other friends, his football teammate and a confidant, hopped up with a raised champagne glass during the first hour of the reception. By that point, I was fully wasted from the all-inclusive free cocktails and felt unthinkably emotional about my best friend moving on in life and leaving me behind. He had entered the world of shared tax returns, split rent and, soon, kids. As I downed rum punches one after another, my eyes welled up with pride and joy for Anwar’s newly sealed love, and then unloaded tears for my own sullen fate as a wayward bachelor. I couldn’t let the first speech be the last one.
I remember up to the first part of my speech because I had to recite a mantra in my head to keep my heavy eyes open and wobbly feet planted in the sand. Then the entire shoreline went black. When I woke up, in the bathtub of Anwar’s honeymoon suite, I was covered in my own puke and all the putrid shame that came up with it. The bathroom decor peered down at me, with a tropical sunset spilling across its shiny tiles, laughing. The wedding party — girlfriend included — had left me there to sort out what was left of my limp, drunk body. Luckily, they’d removed my rental slacks far away enough from the mess, so I didn’t have to pay the extra cleaning fee when I returned it. Pantsless and hopeless, I stumbled out of the room and walked back to my resort in boxers. I was single again and I had maybe managed to lose the only friend who would put up with such an epic and selfish failure on what was his most important day.
He called me later to join everyone for dinner. When I picked up, he said, “Boy... really f*cked this one up, didn’t you? Dinner in an hour at the hotel or whatever.”
I didn’t understand his forgiveness or value it as much as I should have. But, in that instance, he was more than a circumstantial friend from middle school. He became the person I’d do anything for, no questions asked.
There’s a scene in LIFE where Claude Banks (Lawrence) toils away at chain-gang road work (a staple of the free labor system that props up United States infrastructure to this day). As the Mississippi sun draws its brutal toll, Ray nudges Claude with an escape plan. Claude has no time for another scheme, and notes, for maybe the first time in the film, how angry he is to be linked to trickster Ray’s petty crimes and grifting. If it wasn’t for Ray picking Claude’s pocket in a restaurant bathroom, the two wouldn’t even know each other. Claude’s moment of clarity, his willingness to push Ray beyond superficial sketchiness, is a crown jewel of Martin Lawrence’s acting career. His subdued anger, once brewing through a series of mishaps, has reached a rolling boil. He’s insulted that Ray wants to get him caught up in another failed scam, so he lashes out:
“Why you always talking about ‘we’? There’s no ‘we,’ Ray. There’s a me. There’s a you. There ain’t no ‘we’ between us.”
In a later scene, Ray, feeling generous, offers to read letters for an older inmate who can’t read. The older man’s been holding a letter from his family for four months with no way to decipher it. In 1930s Mississippi, it was uncommon to find literate Black men, and the legacy of slavery had left many illiterate because it was illegal for Blacks to learn to read in so many states.
But in this pivotal moment, Ray’s reading duties serve two purposes in the film. The older inmate learns that almost all of his family has died. (This is such a morbid reveal that the other prisoners groan a collective “No” when Ray offers to read their letters in a twisted joke.) But Claude and Ray learn that, because it has no place to feed, hope dies quickly in prison. The letter-reading scene renders LIFE too sobering to be called comedy. The letter-reading scene is an honest version of prison life, and one of the few on-screen portrayals of mass incarceration at its inhumane worst.
Claude sees some redeeming qualities in Ray that follow the tone of that scene. Ray may not be the most upright citizen, but he upholds honor when it comes to people he cares about. Asking Claude to join his caper was his way of showing he cared to save his friend’s life in the same way he’d doomed it in the beginning.
Claude ends up having a change of heart:
CLAUDE: Still got that map?
RAY: Yea, I still got it. Why?
CLAUDE: Well if you thinking about booking it, I want in. I think we can make it.
RAY: We? Man, ain’t you the one that told me there wasn’t no "we"? Now you wanna be "we" again, huh? What happened, you get some bad news in that letter back there, n*gga?
This is their friendship. Two average men making their way through life, even if it means charting a path to death. Friendship is both simple and cruel that way: it must adapt to difficult change or die. Of course, it will still die in the end, too.
When Anwar was moving to L.A. from our Brooklyn hometown five years back, he asked for my help getting his big furniture into the moving truck. I had sprained my knee earlier that month but didn’t hesitate. We angled couches down the mountain of his walk-up apartment staircase. We found and threw away crates of CDs not listened to in years and coughed up dust from blunts and missed floor spots. We took longer than we needed to, and night fell as we rallied two other friends to cram junk bags in the back of the truck. Honestly, it wasn’t enough time. We should have reminisced more and stretched the hours in the day for one more roasting session with the homies. We should’ve said we were sorry for the times we let each other down. We should’ve had more hope that our friendship would continue the same way as 6th grade lunchroom freestyling and 3 a.m. prank calls in college. Randomly, as we lit another cigar to end the night of cleaning and packing, Anwar starts belting out the chorus from the title track LIFE by Jodeci.
“Life, life. LIFE, LIFE! LIFE! LIFE! LIFE! LIFE”
To which I replied, “Life. Liiiife.”
That was our inside joke when things went poorly, singing that dumb chorus as loud as we could. It was our honest confession that we had no clue what life intended for us and even less control over our responses.
On our phone call the other day, we concluded that, though LIFE was one of the best comedies of our adolescence, it wasn’t a comedy at all, really. The main characters are accidental friends. The judge sentences them to life in prison and they serve most of that time, unable to grow with their society but knowing that it moves on without them. Their appeals are denied and their escapes thwarted. An inmate commits suicide by attempting escape in broad daylight, knowing he’ll be shot dead. The supporting characters either die or lose faith. Very little about the film is funny except its honesty and its intimate commitment to showing the evolution of a friendship over time. By the end, Claude and Ray come to know each other at the core, accepting the cards they’ve been dealt and supporting a desperate grip on the faith they can get free. If anything, the film denies any payoff, preferring long-road disappointment and waning resistance. Instead, LIFE captures the essence of friendship, showing that honesty is the glue when the laughter and pain subside.
Now that Anwar has his two sons, a wife, his own family, I see how much I relied on his loving friendship a lot more than he could rely on my dependent one. I’ll lose him if I’m not honest about that. All friendships end, but we get to decide how.
Andrew Ricketts is a New York based writer whose work has appeared in Mass Appeal, TheSmokingSection and Interactive One. You can follow him on Twitter @DrewBreez
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures.