Believe it or not, Netflix has yet another Best Actor contender in Eddie Murphy who is mesmerizing in Dolemite is My Name, along with an ensemble cast of supporting standouts, like Wesley Snipes. And how else to describe the appearance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph except to say a star is born. If you don’t already know her name you soon will, as she and Snipes nearly walk away with this movie.
The first thing to know about Dolemite is My Name is that while it’s a comedy – it touches on a serious subject, specifically, why it was so hard for decades for black filmmakers and black casts to be recognized by White America who dominated Hollywood. That undercurrent shines brightly in a film with one of the best ensembles of the year in a year of great ensembles. Of course, we’re not talking high falutin’ art. When Dolemite the movie was released, one critic said it wasn’t fit for a blind dog. The film doesn’t try to pass it off as anything other than what it was. At the same time, even those making it and Moore himself might not have fully understood then what his place in the history of African-American art and music would be.
I was probably 10 years old when my dad took my sister and me to see Dolemite. He liked the blaxploitation genre and kung fu movies, also popular so when he picked us up, winding up the long Topanga canyon road to take us to the movies on the weekends those are the kinds of films he took us to see. I remember only one line from Dolemite and that was that he called himself, “the hamburger pimp.” My dad continued to quote Dolemite throughout his life, so I will confess to having a slightly more personal attachment to the movie, which celebrates the same era, albeit from a slightly different angle, as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, famous for Dolemite but also for being “The Godfather of rap”, as he called himself, and really for having an American success story like no other. While he’s an icon in the black community, he’s barely known in the white community, which is a tragedy, considering who he was and what his legacy has been, not just to rap music but to anyone who aspires to rise from a world that tries to stop you at every turn but that you just plow on through anyway to get where you’re going.
The filmmakers behind Dolemite took great care to tell Moore’s story in a way that celebrates both his persona and also Moore’s journey, who he met along the way, how he invested all of the money he made from his records to get his film made, and how no one gave him the time of day until his movie became so popular they had no choice. He might not have invented the blaxploitation genre but he’s a standout in it – the script, written by Alexander and Larry Karaszewski – describes it as the combination of white flight and a lot of movie theaters sitting empty because there weren’t any movies aimed at those who still lived there.
Of his work, Moore said, “I wasn’t saying dirty words just to say them… 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 expressionist.” It was one of those things where you get the joke or you don’t – and back then, black audiences got it and white audiences didn’t. The film also shows the reverse, as Moore and his friends check out the “most buzzed” film at the time, 1974’s The Front Page. The resourceful More sees immediately that there is a whole community Hollywood is leaving behind.
Dolemite is My Name will be a very interesting example of exactly what the film illustrates so well, as mostly white critics write about its value in a way that probably white people can’t really understand, certainly not those whose own cinema knowledge draws from the very industry that blocked people like Rudy Ray Moore from rising, or the same industry that made movies only for white people for decades. The blaxploitation genre had its own separate trajectory, even if people like Tarantino grew up loving it.
Eddie Murphy as Dolemite should be considered one of the major forces in the Best Actor race this year. Murphy packed on the pounds to play the “portly” Moore and at times, Murphy the actor disappears, so complete is the transformation. That it’s yet another Netflix contender, along with Robert De Niro in The Irishman, Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes, and Adam Driver in Marriage Story makes me fear he won’t be considered in such a packed race, but he should be. This is by far one of the best performances of the year and of Murphy’s career. He does have a secret weapon only shared with Leonardo Dicaprio – he’s in a funny, uplifting film, the kind of rags to riches story people will want to see amid a sea of darker themed films. That means, people will not only watch it but they’ll WANT to watch it. Also, it’s going to make a shit-ton of money before it hits Netflix, where it will be wildly popular.
Wesley Snipes is fantastic as D’Urville Martin, a bit player from Rosemary’s Baby elevated to high status on Dolemite, and only deigning to participate if he can also direct. And Da’Vine Joy Randolph emerges as a major cinematic force as Lady Reed, a Dolemite friend and collaborator. These three should all be considered for Oscar nominations, along with the original screenplay, costumes by Oscar winning Ruth E. Carter. And of course, the film should be seriously considered for Best Picture, even if comedies aren’t usually a part of the lineup. Something that is this integral to the black community should not go ignored.
Directed by Craig Brewer, Dolemite is My Name manages to be at once funny and somehow endearing while also delivering its message clear enough to be heard. Also great are Craig Robinson and Keegan-Michael Key as Dolemite sidekicks, along with a tight ensemble of a movie within a movie. You wouldn’t believe such a thing as Dolemite ever existed, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself – who made it, how he made it, everything and everyone he ignored to see it through. It should inspire almost anyone who wants to make a movie to just say, the hell with it, let’s do this thing.
In 1975, Dolemite was made for $100,000 and made around $12 million. That’s an astonishing achievement for anyone to have made; all the more remarkable that it was a guy like Moore, whose life started out as a potato peeler, whose father told him he’d amount to nothing, to understanding he had charisma, and a keen ability to make people laugh.
In his obit, Douglas Martin wrote:
But Mr. Moore could be said to represent a profound strand of African-American folk art. One of his standard stories concerns a monkey who uses his wiles and an accommodating elephant to fool a lion. The tale, which originated in West Africa, became a basis for an influential study by the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.”