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Dolemite Is My Name

If you’ve never had the pleasure to see Dolemite, the film is a prime slice of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. It’s fight sequences, car explosions, sex scenes, shootouts, and gorgeous women in various states of undress, all slammed together with only the thinnest of plots and the bare minimum of technical ability. The film is comically inept in every way, playing more like a parody of blaxploitation cinema (already a parody of itself), centered around a leading man far too old, too balding, and too overweight to plausibly be the Shaft wannabe he’s clearly trying to pass himself off as. And yet it’s that leading man — one Rudy Ray Moore — who holds it all together with his bottomless charisma and his total lack of shame.

The movie is not to be confused with Dolemite Is My Name, the new biopic about Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy, here turning in what’s easily his best work in the past twenty years). The film introduces Moore as a farmer’s son from Arkansas who moved to LA and trained himself to be an actor, singer, dancer, comedian, whatever it would take to break into showbiz. Unable to find any kind of conventional success, Moore makes his own luck by developing and self-publishing his own brand of comedy, succeeding through sheer tenacity and resourcefulness despite his lack of experience or talent, until he finally makes a cult classic smash.

Admittedly, the premise has been done before: The Disaster Artist and Ed Wood both come immediately to mind. Yet there are some crucial differences that set this one above and apart from the other two. Starting with the fact that Dolemite is a better film than The Room or anything in the Ed Wood canon, let’s be real.

More importantly, there’s the fact that as presented in their respective films, Moore is vastly more magnetic and sympathetic than Wood. And of course we never learn a thing about Tommy Wiseau, famously an International Man of Mystery, while Eddie Murphy presents a detailed and intimate portrait of Moore.

The filmmakers are always careful not to oversell it, but Moore is very clearly a product of a dead-end town and a father who never thought he’d amount to anything. It’s easy to watch Moore’s grandstanding and think that he just wants to get famous by any means necessary, but things get more complex at a closer look. In truth, Dolemite isn’t just an onstage character or a brand for Moore to sell, he’s a persona that allows Moore to be somebody more successful and confident than he really is.

Moore is desperate to prove the naysayers wrong and make something of himself in LA so he’ll never have to go back to Arkansas. Finding success in show business is insanely hard, so he’s knocking on every door, learning every trade, beating his head against every wall until something finally shakes loose. Because for some corn-fed black man coming to Tinseltown from the Midwest with no money, connections, or education, that’s the only path he’s got. And anyway, he’s visibly getting on in years — after so many failed attempts at stardom, how many more tries could he have left in him?

Eddie Murphy delivers all of this pathos and vulnerability with grace. And that’s when he isn’t burning the screen down with all of his style and charisma. A central part of Moore’s success is in embracing his status as an overblown shock comic, and Murphy plays the part accordingly, with no quarter given or asked for.

Which brings me to the third big reason why this movie is so far above and apart from its peers: The race angle. At the outset, Moore gets his break when he co-opts the rhyming tales and jokes shared by old black hobos. Moore simply polished the delivery, added a few F-bombs, and unwittingly became known years later as “The Godfather of Rap.” Seriously, while it may not be immediately identifiable as a musical genre, listen carefully to the style and the cadence of Moore’s rhymes. This is very clearly the precursor to the rap and hip-hop of today, a central bridge between the African-American stylings of old and the songs taking up half the Billboard charts right now.

A generation before Run DMC and NWA, Rudy Ray Moore was making entertainment of, by, and for disenfranchised people of color. It was called shocking and grotesque, considered too outrageous and filthy for anyone to buy, because Moore wasn’t making it or selling it to mainstream white audiences. Moore’s genius was in speaking to POC who’ve never seen themselves properly represented in any other media. People who just want to have a good time watching tits and Kung Fu without thinking too hard. People that the bigwigs undervalued because they didn’t have any money.

All the entertainment execs in Hollywood thought they were too good for the ghetto, or at least wanted to be seen as such. Moore understood that there’s a ghetto in every city. So he found a way to speak their language and they rewarded him with great success.

(Side note: Imagine my surprise to find that the movie was written and directed exclusively by white guys. They did a great job.)

That said, the filmmakers never let us forget that the deck is consistently stacked against Moore and his associates. The characters don’t know what they’re doing, they’re trying something that nobody else would be gutsy or stupid enough to try, and they’re flying directly in the face of mainstream execs and critics who want nothing to do with their shenanigans. All for an audience so small that it may not even be there. From start to finish, even when Moore is at his most triumphant, there’s always something that hangs around to ask the question of how much longer Moore’s luck can hold out. It brings an element of uncertainty — always crucial in a biopic — which heightens the stakes and helps solidify the themes at play.

That said, the plot does admittedly get rather repetitive. Somewhere around the fourth or fifth time Moore reaches a low point — when he has to beg for money, when someone turns him down, when it seems like nothing will happen unless he makes it happen — I found myself asking “Haven’t we been here before?” Hell, there’s one point when a character explicitly asks why Moore has given up so easily after all the times he’s come back from this exact same position before.

To be entirely fair, the filmmakers are good enough to make sure this doesn’t play out exactly the same way every time. They up the stakes with every cycle, and Moore is forced to build on top of his previous successes. Even so, it gets to be increasingly less surprising or effective to see Moore pull another rabbit out of his hat, and that does the third act no favors.

But on the other hand, that cast. Even setting aside Eddie Murphy’s extraordinary leading turn, the supporting cast is all aces. We’ve got Keegan Michael Key, TI Harris, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and so many other thoroughly proven talents on the screen here. We’ve even got the reliable Kodi Smit-McPhee on hand as the hapless film student roped into serving as the DP on Dolemite. To say nothing of Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock, both of whom appear for delightful cameo roles.

Still, there are two supporting players who deserve special mention above all others. One of them is Da’Vine Joy Randolph in a starmaking turn, playing a woman of tremendous spirit and hidden talent, made all her life to feel like she was never good enough. She’s exactly the kind of person that Dolemite was made for, and exactly the kind of person that Dolemite was crafted to make famous.

The second one is Wesley Snipes, of all people. He’s here to play D’Urville Martin, the man who directed Dolemite while co-starring as the film’s villain. He is also (as portrayed in this movie) a drunkard and a cokehead with his head stuck firmly up his own ass. Martin is pretentious to the point of delusional, with an ego far greater than any role he’s ever played up to that point. Basically put, Snipes chews the scenery like it’s going out of style and he steals the whole damn show.

This brings me to one of the film’s most crucial selling points: It’s funny as hell. These are all talented comedians at the top of their game, and the subject is funny enough as it is. Sure, I could point to maybe one or two jokes that don’t work quite as well, but the film overall is every bit as gleefully shocking and gut-busting as anything Rudy Ray Moore ever did.

Granted, the filmmakers do cheat on occasion. There are some glaringly obvious contrivances where the filmmakers had to gloss over some events, speeding things up to fit within a two-hour movie. What’s even more obvious are the scenes in which Moore and his film crew are shooting scenes that weren’t even in Dolemite. The most prominent case in point is the sex scene from The Human Tornado, the sequel to Dolemite. It’s an anachronism, but the filmmakers absolutely made the right call putting it in. That was the hardest I’ve laughed all year.

Dolemite Is My Name deserves all the Oscar buzz it’s been getting. The whole cast is exceptional, led by a watershed performance from Eddie Murphy. The film is smart and heartfelt, with so much to say about race in media and life in showbiz, tempered with a wickedly irreverent sense of humor. I wish I could possibly stress enough how funny this movie is, but there’s simply no substitute for laughing your ass off at all the jokes yourself.

Of course I’d encourage seeing this on the big screen if at all possible. But if you’ve got Netflix, you’ve got no excuse. This one comes strongly recommended, don’t let it pass you by.

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