Film Review – Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite Is My Name
Dolemite Is My Name (2019) is the story of two prominent African American stars. The first is Rudy Ray Moore, a former record shop owner who made a name for himself in the 1970s in the standup circuit and would go on to produce and star in the iconic Blaxploitation film, Dolemite (1975) – the making of which this film is based on. The second involves Eddie Murphy, who plays Moore. At one point in the 1980s, Murphy was the biggest star on stage, television, and in theaters. The combination of these two forces results in one of the most entertaining biopics of recent memory and one of Murphy’s best performances to date.
One paper, this has all the familiar trappings we’ve seen before: the down on his luck dreamer, the executives telling them “No,” the numerous obstacles and barriers to cross, the arduous climb to the top, etc. The director – Craig Brewer – has told a version of this story before, in the very good Hustle & Flow (2005). This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a rag tag group of people try to make a movie, the scenario could be very well be a subgenre all its own. But the execution is so well done, with such earnest affection toward the subject matter, that it’s impossible not to fall for its charms. The fact that it’s really funny also helps.
Having Murphy play the lead role was a stroke of genius. He disappears into Moore, filling him with ambition, sadness, determination, and energy – sometimes all in the same scene. Murphy’s very presence adds an extra context. His once highflying career has since downgraded to two decades of forgettable comedies and family films. Outside of an Oscar-nominated turn in Dreamgirls (2006), Murphy’s recent output has been lackluster. Dolemite Is My Name acts as an underdog story for himself – as a performer who was down and out and found a way to pull himself up. He reminds us that he is capable of just about anything when put in the right position.
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s screenplay structures the narrative into two parts. The first half focuses on Moore’s ascent in standup comedy, utilizing a rhyming style full of obscene punchlines. We learn that this technique heavily influenced the lyrical flow of rap music. Moore created the stage persona of “Dolemite,” a kind of superhero alter ego, as he would describe. The second half features Moore and his friends, family, acquaintances – basically anyone he could convince – coming together to shoot the Dolemite movie. Brewer (along with cinematographer Eric Steelberg and editor Billy Fox) incorporate a number of montages showing Moore and his crew using their wit and ingenuity to get things done. When distributors wouldn’t carry Moore’s comedy album “Eat Out More Often,” he decided to distribute it himself, selling it out of the trunk of his car. When studios refused to buy Dolemite, Moore toured with the film cannisters, building a grassroots movement through word of mouth.
Murphy’s performance would not nearly be as good if it weren’t for the rich supporting cast to play off of. There’s a nice balance between them all, and each get a share of the spotlight. Wesley Snipes shows up as D’Urville Martin, an established actor whom Moore convinces to participate by offering both the director’s position and a featured role. Snipes plays Martin as the hilariously pretentious “artiste,” whose self-importance might be grander than it actually is. But it’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed who steals the show. As an overweight black singer, we first meet Lady Reed resigned to the idea that she is not “beautiful.” Through her friendship with Moore, Lady Reed found an inner strength that shed her insecurities and embraced everything that made her stand out from others. The most tender scenes have Moore and Reed simply conversing, sharing their hopes and fears and supporting one another through moments of doubt. It’s a love story based on empathy instead of sex.
One of the big reasons why Rudy Ray Moore (along with other members of the Blaxploitation movement) was so beloved was that he gave voice to those who were unrepresented. For the first time in a major way, those of the black community could look up at the screen and see stories made by black people for black people. It didn’t matter that Moore and his team had little to no experience with the technical side of making movies, they understood that they were all part of something and wanted to contribute to the best of their abilities. That energy and enthusiasm is prevalent here. When the production manages to bring in electricity into their makeshift studio – with all the lights flickering on – we come to believe that Moore’s intentions weren’t just a pipe dream, but the foundation of something truly exciting.
Is the film a bit too enamored with its central figure? Perhaps. Rudy Ray Moore’s personal life isn’t much discussed, as well as the argument that the Dolemite character reinforces negative black stereotypes. In one scene, Moore – as Dolemite – hands his pimp cane to a young fan. Brewer somehow manages to make the moment inspiring. Dolemite Is My Name has a lot of recognizable features, but it’s the details that matter. The connection between Rudy Ray Moore and Eddie Murphy – both in a fictional and real world perspective – is what makes this a rewarding viewing experience.