Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Rudy Ray Moore was a preacher, a soldier, a Harlem Hillbilly, a comedian, a musician, a singer and finally, an actor and producer. He’s best known for his character Dolemite — hey, that’s why we’re talking about this film — and the underground following that those movies have. He’s basically the Godfather of Rap, with the way he speaks in these films being taken to heart by many of that genre’s key practicioners.

In fact, Snoop Dogg, who appears in this film, said, Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that’s for real.”

The amazing thing to me is that Moore was a multilayered person. He dreamed of becoming a star, but he took his friends with him on the way, spending his own money to become his own industry. He put his money where his mouth was.

Despite how filthy that mouth could be, he said that he wasn’t swearing just for the sake of being dirty. He would later claim, “It was a form of art, sketches in which I developed ghetto characters who cursed. I don’t want to be referred to as a dirty old man, rather a ghetto expressionism.”

Eddie Murphy was once the king of comedy. Seriously, his rise was like a rocket, hosting Saturday Night Live while he was still as castmember. I just watched an old Sneak Previews where Siskel and Ebert worried that Murphy would be co-opted by Hollywood, forced to do so many bad projects that his magic would go away. Sure, he made Shrek money and would occasionally be in a fun movie like Bowfinger, but there has nothing coming out that hinted at the magic that the star displayed in movies like Trading Places.

Murphy dreamed of making a film about Rudy Ray Moore and has been developing this film with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who wrote Ed WoodMan On the MoonBig EyesAmerican Crime Story and many others) since 2003. However, with Netflix looking for content and director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) on board, it finally happened.

Honestly, I couldn’t be happier.

In the 1970’s, Moore (Murphy) hasn’t lived his dream yet. He’s stuck working in a record store and can’t even get his music played on the in-store radio station. The only entertainment work he can get is being the MC at a club where his friend Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) plays at. Yet one day, he has a revelation.

A homeless man named Rico keeps coming in and loudly yelling about things in rhyme, invoking the name of a man named Dolemite. Moore pays him and the other winos cold hard cash to hear their tales of street hustle and African-American folklore like the Signifying Monkey.

Moore reemerges as Dolemite himself, cast as a pimp with a cane, confidently taking to the stage and winning over the entire crowd. Despite people telling him he’s too profane, too old or too out of shape, he conquers entertainment his own way, selling his records under the counter and from the trunk of his car.

Joining with his friend on tour, he meets Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is great in this) and brings her on board. They celebrate one night by watching the movie The Front Page. While the audience around them finds it hilarious, it leaves the group cold. They feel unrepresented by mass media and feel that if they could just get on screen, the five blocks in every town that loves Moore’s comedy albums would come to see them.

Moore unites playwrite Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) with actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes, who is astounding), who will direct. Then, he takes over an old theater that has fallen under hard times and transforms it into his own studio. He and his crew may know little to nothing about making a film, but that won’t stop them. Not even having no theater to show it in will stop them.

At the end of the film, as their limo rolls up to the premiere and Moore tells them that they may be failures tonight, but that they accomplished something, so much emotion welled up inside me. This movie felt like a catharis for the maelstorm that has been my life for the past month and showed me that people that care about art can truly make it. Of course, they emerge from the limo to discover that so many people have come to the theater that it must keep showing the movie late into the night.

If you’re a film lover — particularly of the kind of movies we cover on this site — this movie is a joy. Beyond Murphy name dropping the fact that he equates Moore on the same level as Jodorowsky in a recent interview, all manner of 1970’s grindhouse facts are in here to savor.

There’s Nicholas Josef von Sternberg appearing as the director of photography. He’s the son of famous director Josef von Sternberg and would go on to be the DP for Tourist TrapDr. Alien and Joysticks, amongst many others.

Bob Odenkirk — one of my patron saints — also shows up as Lawrence Woolner, the head of Dimension Films, who produced Raw Force and was the presenter in the documentary film Beyond Atlantis.

There’s also a scene where Moore is checking off the studios that turned him down. It’s great — Avco Embassy is on there, as is Bryanston.

Plus, if you’re a Dolemite fan, there are references to nearly every one of his films. Man, I’m getting the vapors all over again just writing about it. If I think about it too long, I start to well up with emotion. It just felt so good to see the moment when Moore realizes that all of his hard work has paid off.

None of this may mean much to you if you never saw one of the man’s films. But it meant everything to me. The sheer joy of film is that we must accept that we live in a world with people that are geniuses, whether that’s someone who can essay the rich cultural heritage of the black experience like Moore, the psychosexual rituals that power magic ala Jodorowsky or create the numerous camera tricks and lighting styles that have become the language of film like Bava. They have lived in our same world, breathed our same air and we must acknowledge them, their work and their impact. It inspires me every single day.

You can watch this on Netflix.

We take a second look at Dolemite Is My Name as part of our “Drive-In Friday: Movies About Movies” and Dolemite as part our “Drive-In Friday: First Time Directors & Actors” night featurettes.

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