When the magnetic profanity and jolting energy effortlessly diffuse onto the big screen, it becomes clear that Eddie Murphy’s church of comedy was sorely missed. Fortunately, its reunion takes the form of Dolemite Is My Name, Craig Brewer’s glistening and hilarious odyssey of artistic determination, Black creativity, and pop culture on the brink of representative transformation. Telling the outrageously true story of one of the most successful blaxploitation films of the 1970s – Rudy Ray Moore’s madcap, wonky yet wildly adored action caper, Dolemite – Murphy projects the cult classic creator with every comedic tactic he’s got. And though the film as a whole sometimes feels generic, we let the red carpet roll for Murphy’s raw, untamed talent.
Of course, movies celebrating the clunky conception of outsider cinema have become a subgenre in their own right, often featuring a robust lead to orbit around. Most recently joining the ranks of Ed Wood and Baadasssss! was James Franco’s marvelously quirky 2017 picture, The Disaster Artist, which chronicled Tommy Wiseau’s eccentric path to The Room. Dolemite Is My Name follows a similar mantra, showcasing Rudy who, now in his fifties and a bit chunkier than the few Black faces dazzling in the limelight, has more or less missed his chance to penetrate the entertainment industry.
Sure, Rudy’s cross-country migration from the Arkansas farmlands to the Hollywood clubs has offered him the occasional gig, but never a spot on the marquee. And the bulk of his entrepreneurial experience has consisted of little more than closed doors and snappy rejections. After finally coming to terms with the fact that Rudy Ray Moore is offering something nobody wants, he changes the conversation. Practically plagiarizing the rhythmic ditties of a local wino (Ron Cephas Jones), he pulls together a boisterous act with the pimping character of Dolemite, who jumps onto the stage with a studded cane, a gregariously green jacket, a booming afro wig and a series of obscene offerings. Moore would later become known as “the godfather of rap” for these riotous fables, and at the time, they turned him into a star.
The bulk of the narrative arrives when Moore – after a rather unenthusiastic screening of Billy Wilder’s The Front Page – decides to bring Dolemite to the big screen. But before that side-splitting and tumultuous production process begins, Moore’s greatest hits play out like a symphony of Murphy standup. On his best day, the real Moore surely didn’t have a shred of the onstage charm that Murphy exhibits with ease, but the Dreamgirls star homes in on his role. In fact, you may have to turn the pages back a few decades to find such an enthusiastic performance from him, enthusiasm that is further enhanced by its relevance to the story.
Rudy is a persistent self-believer; he’s determined to make an unapologetically Black movie for a comparatively untapped Black market, complete with “funnies, titties and kung fu.” But, as he ritually points out, Rudy doesn’t know the first thing about filmmaking. And so, his first-rate recruiting brings together an explosively enjoyable ensemble of artists into the mix, starting with Wesley Snipes’ D’Urville Martin.
Martin, whose popular-enough performance as the elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby makes him the most experienced member of the bunch, is unimpressed by Rudy’s initial offer – which awkwardly takes place in the middle of a strip joint. It isn’t until Moore offers Dolemite up as the professional’s directorial debut in addition to the part of the antagonist that Martin accepts. But once he’s on the set, his ego gets more than the best of him, and his dismissive reactions to the disastrous feats in front of him are absolutely hilarious.
The cast is similarly heightened by amusing supporting roles from Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a humble singer-actress who becomes Rudy’s confidant, Keegan-Michael Key as the socially conscious playwright Jerry Jones, and Craig Robinson as Ben Taylor, who brought to Dolemite what Hayes did for Shaft.
While there are a few bumps along the ride – most notably a distracting sound design that makes Netflix’s subtitles a near blessing at some points – there’s much to be admired throughout this band of brothers’ and sisters’ journey to DIY glory. Ed Wood scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay manages to reenact and interact with Dolemite’s goofy aesthetics without ever actually goof-ifying the characters themselves. And Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter has followed up her Academy Award-winning work with another eye-popping celebration of Black culture and heritage.
But in the end, Dolemite Is My Name belongs to Murphy. The legendary comic has said that he wanted this film to remind people that they love him, paving the way for a re-entry into the social stream. I’d say mission accomplished.
The blaxploitation response to The Disaster Artist, Dolemite Is My Name not only features a glorious lead performance, but also an artist’s intrinsic desire of production and splendor that only Hollywood can provide.