Here’s far and away the best thing about Dolemite Is My Name: Eddie Murphy’s grand return to the big screen after a few fallow years. It’s the first part of a comeback that will include hosting Saturday Night Live later this year for the first time since 1984, a forthcoming Netflix stand-up special, and a 2020 stand-up tour. And this would all be celebration-worthy even if Dolemite Is My Name wasn’t much of a movie.
Luckily, the movie is also a lot of fun. Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, the entertainer who rose to fame in the 1970s after he created a character called Dolemite, a smooth-talking pimp who talks in rhyme and brags of his exploits. Moore recorded a number of hit comedy records as Dolemite, then made several blaxploitation movies about the character, starting with Dolemite in 1975. And his performance style later earned him the moniker “godfather of rap.”
Directed by Hustle & Flow’s Craig Brewer from a screenplay by Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Dolemite Is My Name is basically an origin story — a raunchy one — for the character of Dolemite, as well as the real-life story of how the first movie got made. It was a true team effort, with a bunch of friends and a handful of film students banding together to make an instant cult classic.
But this movie is a couple of other things, too. It’s an interesting (if not in-depth) exploration of how culturally dependent a thing comedy really is. It’s a vivid depiction of the challenges that black entertainers have faced, particularly in Hollywood. And it is, to everyone’s delight, a great Eddie Murphy performance.
Dolemite Is My Name is the story of one of the most influential entertainers of the 1970s
The character of Dolemite was built out of stories passed around in black communities about physically strong, sexually exuberant characters. In Dolemite Is My Name, Moore encounters those stories in a group of hobos, most notably Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones), who’s a regular visitor at the record store where Moore works with his friend Toney (Tituss Burgess). (One of the true joys of this film is that bit parts are filled by people like Snoop Dogg, who mans the turntable at the little radio station run out of the back of the record store. Chris Rock also plays a radio host later in the movie.)
Ricco shows up at the store every so often to regale the customers with stories of “the baddest motherfucker who ever lived, Dolemite.” Moore, who by night bombs his stand-up sets at a local club before his friend Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson, always terrific) performs with his band, tries to shoo Ricco away until he realizes that Ricco’s stories always kill. So Moore hunts Ricco and his buddies down and gets them to tell him the tall tales they’ve picked up over time. With a little finesse and some flashy clothing, Moore turns the stories into a character to play down at the club: Dolemite.
He rhymes and struts and brags and tells absolutely filthy stories in verse, and the audience loves it. Moore records an album (the 1970 record Eat Out More Often), which he and his friends self-produce. It hits the Billboard charts. They make more records; (white) producers come knocking. Dolemite is a hit.
But when Moore and his friends go to the movies, looking for a comedy, they end up in the theater watching The Front Page, Billy Wilder’s 1974 film starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Susan Sarandon. The white audience around them is roaring but Moore’s group is wrinkling their noses. It’s just not working for them.
Moore gets an inspiration: make a movie about Dolemite for the people who already love Dolemite. How hard could it be? So he tracks down a screenwriter (Keegan-Michael Key) and a director (Wesley Snipes), plus a couple of kids from UCLA (including Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a handful of collaborators. Then he sets about making, with no experience whatsoever, his first movie, to be simply titled Dolemite.
Dolemite Is My Name points to the joy of making art against all the odds
An undercurrent in Dolemite Is My Name — one that feels very contemporary — is the notion that the way comedy hits you depends on your culture. Moore pinpoints what doesn’t work about The Front Page for him: “This movie had no titties, no funny, and no kung-fu. The stuff people like us wanna see.” Everybody nods.
And indeed, Dolemite’s brand of comedy was calibrated for an audience who wouldn’t find Billy Wilder’s shtick funny either. There’s a sideways, hard-won bent to his humor, to the raunchy boasts and filthy jokes that could be called “un-PC.” For people consigned to the margins, it’s a bold act to make that comedy, and a cathartic one to laugh at it.
The feeling of being kept out of the “mainstream,” made to feel less-than, is part of what Dolemite Is My Name is evoking. Moore is kind of “doughy,” as someone puts it, which is nothing like the ripped figures people are used to seeing on screen. And the women of 1970s cinema (exploitation and otherwise) are all willowy and elegant, the type who don’t take up much space. In stark contrast is Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Moore meets in a bar following a Dolemite set. She’s dejected after reaming out her philandering husband, convinced that because she doesn’t resemble the screen sirens of the time she’s not worth being seen. Moore strikes up a friendship and then a creative partnership with her.
Their collaboration leads to Lady Reed being part of Moore’s act and then cast in Dolemite, and watching her come into her own as a performer is one of the film’s joys. Late in the film, she tells Moore (in a speech that feels a little hamfisted but makes the point) that she’s never seen anyone who looks like her on screen, and her work with him means everything to her.
Which is sort of what Dolemite Is My Name is about. It’s not that there weren’t blaxploitation films before Dolemite, nor that Rudy Ray Moore was the only innovator of his time. But something about what he did struck a chord with his audience, and the cadence and braggadocio of his delivery onstage set a template for the rappers of the ’80s and their descendants, too. Moore making a movie is an act of faith that there’s an audience out there who will want to watch what he’s doing.
And he was right. Viewed through a strictly technical lens, the 1975 Dolemite film isn’t exactly good. It’s clearly amateur work. But it’s got everything it needs to have — most importantly a long-appreciative audience who made it into a cult classic and the sense of playfulness that makes it a blast to watch. Dolemite Is My Name captures that joy. And with Murphy at the center, it promises good things ahead, too.
Dolemite Is My Name opens in theaters on October 4 and will begin streaming on Netflix on October 25.