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Dolemite Is My Name
★★★☆☆
First run Screening room

Eddie Murphy returns to the type of role that made him famous in this slight but enjoyable biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, the African-American comedian, singer, actor, and film producer who created and starred in the minor classic of independent and blaxploitation cinema, Dolemite (1975), as well as its many sequels. Dolemite is My Name is a fanciful depiction of Moore’s life in the early 1970s from the time he was a struggling middle-aged entertainer to his ascendance as a comedian and filma actor whose fast-talking rhyming style of storytelling became a foundational inspiration for the first generation of rappers. When we meet Moore he is working in an LA record store, trying to get his out-of-date music on the in-store radio station presided over by a hip DJ (Snoop Dogg in a canny cameo), and working nights as an MC for his sole singer/songwriter friend Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson). Unable to gain traction in any of his endeavours, he hits upon the idea of creating a stage persona for himself as the legendary teller-of-tall tales and hilarious, foul-mouthed rhyming put-downs, Dolemite. Dressing as a pimp and copping a cocksure attitude, Moore becomes a hit in urban nightclubs and on the “Chitlin Circuit” and eventually parleys his success in comedy albums into the making of a feature film starring him.

Directed by Craig Brewer, the man behind Hustle & Flow (2005), Black Snake Moan (2006), and the Footloose remake (2011), Dolemite is My Name goes down as smooth as an ice-cold 40oz of Colt 45. The screenplay is by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a team that has essentially been writing the same disposable biopic for that past twenty-five years. Their screenplay for Ed Wood, about the notorious no-budget auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr. was made into the 1994 Tim Burton film that flopped upon its initial release but has become a huge cult favorite among cinephiles. The strength of that movie’s winning formula of lovable underdog story, celebration of “freak” culture, and old-fashioned “lets-put-on-a-show” energy made Alexander and Karaszewski the go-to writers for biographical movies about self-actualized protagonists whose lack of what bourgeois society traditionally accepts as talent is what makes the heroic. Their films—which include Miloš Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999), and Burton’s Big Eyes (2014)—are less interested in digging deeply into the history of their subjects than in providing a showcase for big stars and name directors to play around with historical events while making simplistic points about pop culture, art, and politics.

Despite my dislike for most of their previous post-Ed Wood work, it is difficult to argue that Scott & Larry, as they’re often known, were the wrong guys for this job. It is clear why Murphy would approach them to write a Rudy Ray Moore film for him to star in. Dolemite is My Name is very much in the spirit of Ed Wood, with its motivated dreamer protagonist of dubious talent assembling a group of eclectic individuals to help him make a movie against spectacular odds. The screenplay moves from beat A to B to C to D in the most simplistic fashion; glossing over the fascinating details of how Moore developed his stage persona and only loosely sketching out all the fascinating characters who became part of his stock company. 

We see a cursory version of how Moore created his Dolemite persona by repurposing old rhymes, Yo-Mama style insults, and outrageous brags passed along by generations of black slaves and their descendants. This history is alluded to in the film but is mostly embodied by the composite character of an old wino who calls himself “a repository of Afro-American folklore,” who will regale anyone with tales in exchange for a little coin or a sip of booze. Seeing Moore sit down and record the bum’s stories and then rework them in is house with a pencil and paper is an abbreviated way to get through the rich backstory this movie could have explored were it not in such a hurry to get to the “good parts” where we see Murphy in character on stage. In truth though, Murphy as Dolemite is what most viewers are coming to see, and this movie delivers what it promises. The fact that the old wino Moore learns (or appropriates) from is played by the peerless Ron Cephas Jones helps make the all-too-brief sequence of Moore becoming Dolemite far more palatable.

And the entire cast of supporting actors does so much with roles either underdeveloped or overwritten. Wesley Snipes plays D'Urville Martin, the prissy, alcoholic actor of some repute who ends up directing and co-starring in Dolemite.  Snipes isn’t on screen all that much, but when he is he steals the show. The film marks somewhat of a comeback for the great actor, who starred in New Jack City, White Men Can't Jump, and the Blade trilogy but has been out of action for a while due to being jailed for tax evasion. Stage and TV star Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Lady Reed, the divorced, plus-sized, single mother whom Moore takes on as a protégé and leading lady. Some of the on-the-nose, speechifying dialogue Alexander and Karaszewski give her character would be cringe-worthy were it not for Randolph’s ability to put it across in ways that feel authentic and truthful. As much as this picture is a showcase for Murphy, these two performances make it a must-see; and both Snipes and Randolph are worthy of Best Supporting Actor nominations. 

But, of course, Murphy is the real show here, and while this is hardly the best performance this one-of-a-kind movie star has ever given, it’s a hoot to see him playing a cocky, fast-talking, uproariously R-rated hero again. Like Ed Wood, The Disaster Artist, My Week with Marilyn, and a growing number of films about how bad movies got made, part of the fun of Dolemite is My Name, especially for those of us who know Dolemite well, is seeing re-creations of classic sequences from a behind-the-scenes perspective (and, as is now customary, we see some of the scenes from the actual movie during the end credits). But the accuracy of those reenactments is just window dressing for the real heart of the movie, which is watching a driven, possibly delusional, protagonist who will stop at nothing to realize his crazy dream. 

“Trash cinema” and stories about artists who can’t tell good art from bad (and don’t really care about the difference) have always been with us, but the growing popularity of movies that explore the creation of bad but beloved art is an interesting phenomenon in a world simultaneously becoming more democratic in terms of pop culture and more authoritarian in terms of where power resides. And since so much pop-culture is based on recycling material from the past, the story of a washed-up individual of questionable abilities who becomes an icon by reaching back to the oldest traditions of his culture is prescient.

We can now assuredly say that the America of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which there were supposedly no second acts, has been completely inverted so that today in America there is little other than second, third, and forth acts—for everything from ‘80s sitcoms to long-dormant political ideologies of the most extreme sort. Dolemite is My Name represents both a welcome comeback for Eddie Murphy and a surprise forth act for the late Rudy Ray Moore, who started out as a singer, became a comedian and filmmaker, is one of the acknowledged Godfather’s of hip-hop, and is now a posthumous legend born again for a whole new generation.

Twitter Capsule:
Slight but enjoyable biopic about an underdog hero of comedy and blaxploitation is a welcome return for Murphy to the type of role that made him famous, and a surprise forth-act for the late Rudy Ray Moore!

Directed by Craig Brewer
Produced by Eddie Murphy, John Davis, and John Fox

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski

With: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Ron Cephas Jones, Barry Shabaka Henley, T.I., Luenell, Tasha Smith, and Chris Rock

Cinematography: Eric Steelberg
Editing: Billy Fox
Music: Scott Bomar

Runtime: 118 min
Release Date: 25 October 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.00 : 1
Color