Even if you’ve never seen a blaxploitation movie ever, fear not. For in director Craig Brewer‘s biographical Dolemite Is My Name, you’ll get to see not an example of just how such movies came about into being, but also perhaps one of the most preposterous models of self-belief and dogged perseverance. That model is embodied by Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a struggling stand-up comic working his day job at a record store, pushing the local DJ to play his recorded songs to no avail, and moonlighting at a club as an MC for friend Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson, who also composed the funky, groovy background score). Moore’s onstage jokes don’t fall flat. They don’t even rise to fall. And then, a chance run-in with a homeless man lights his inspiration to come up with rambunctious, vulgar, and brash rhyming lines. Dressed as a pimp and using a fictitious Dolemite as his poetic character, Moore makes a killing onstage. And then, goes on to produce his own record with his aunt’s money, and makes a greenbacks killing too. Along the way, the Dolemite gang is formed that includes the knock out Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Jimmy Lynch (Mike Epps) and Moore’s record store co-worker Toney (Tituss Burgess).
But Moore isn’t happy about staying stuck in the record label groove, and wants to put up himself (and Dolemite) up on the silver screen. If up until now director Brewer kept the racial undercurrent subterranean—it’s only the black community who buy and enjoy Moore’s records, and they’re the ones patronizing the club because it’s in an all-black area—he swings the tension between the need to be recognized mainstream and the segregation push that cut across the US in the 70s; when black representation in movies was bold typecast and little else; when the stories they had to tell got submerged in an all-whitewash of actors; when even culturally, the two streams of folk had hardly anything in common to share, fuse, or participate in. The scene where Moore and friends watch the Billy Wilder-directed The Front Page with growing disdain and wonder is telling—what, why, and how on earth did the white folk around them guffaw at the Susan Sarandon, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon exchanges? This disconnect is a moment of epiphany for Moore which is when he makes up his mind about the Dolemite movie. He scrambles together a rag-tag team of writer Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), a reluctant director, actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) and UCLA film students (that includes Nicholas Josef von Sternberg played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) as cinematographer for his kung-fu-based, topless women-showcased blaxpoitation movie, Dolemite.
Dolemite Is My Name is delirious fun, raunchy, and loud. Much like the movies its subject made, it doesn’t pull any cuss words or feel delicate just about anything. But what it does use a cracker-jack approach to tell Moore’s story that was in real-life, packed with mountains of struggles and debt. (The comparison is specious, but this is the tack that director Paresh Mokashi adopted to narrate the struggles of India’s father of cinema in the delightful Marathi movie, Harishchandrachi Factory.)
Among the cast, Wesley Snipes is in rip-roaring form. As the truculent, vodka swigging Martin, he’s superb, getting in his class narrative subtly—he played the lift operator in Rosemary’s Baby, so that made him superior to all the other amateurs, no? And in Eddie Murphy’s powerful and seemingly careless act, the movie notches up in energy and verve. Murphy gives it all, reins in nothing, and yet simmering inside all of his scenes is hope, hurt, and touching triumph. As Moore would attest and Murphy proves, breaking outside of Donkey’s voice-over in Shrek back into a lead role upfront would have required one foot in his boisterous acts of the past. The other foot placement would have been tougher and demanded much courage: reinventing himself in the present to connect to that past that once belonged to him and before that in another universe, to Moore.
Dolemite Is My Name is streaming on Netflix and is rated A (Restricted to adults). Language, topless scenes, and all that you’d expect from a movie about blaxploitation.
Dolemite Is My Name
Director Craig Brewer Time 1h 57min
Writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Stars Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Wesley Snipes
Genres Biography, Comedy, Drama