Regardless of how you feel about 1975’s Dolemite, you’ll likely get swept up in Craig Brewer’s joyous, upbeat ode to its creator Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite Is My Name. For a movie where someone says “motherfucker” every few seconds its surprisingly wholesome. It’s a film in the vein of “Let’s put on a show!” celebrations like Ed Wood (which shares Dolemite Is My Name writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and more recently The Disaster Artist, Brewer avoids trying to paint a complex portrait of Moore instead heralding him as a dogged, relentless dreamer who didn’t want to let anything stand in his way. Sure, it’s a little simple, but why should this blaxploitation icon be denied his due? The film is labor of love about an entertainer whose work was a labor of love — Moore’s story is posited as a feel-good, heartfelt inspirational tale about outsiders succeeding despite all odds. Both Moore and Dolemite become icons in this story, and with Eddie Murphy giving a lively and memorable performance at the center, we can’t help but fall in love with this legend.
Opening in the early 70s, we follow record store assistant manager Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) struggling to break through as an entertainer any way he can. None of his previous characters or acts have taken off, but after picking up some inspiration from jokes and tales from the hobo community, Rudy seizes on the character of Dolemite, a rhyming pimp with no shortage of punchlines. The film tracks how Rudy relentlessly bets on himself because the entertainment gatekeepers don’t understand or won’t allow his type of comedy. When he needs to manufacture and sell his own comedy album, he does it. When he gets the idea to make a Dolemite movie, he cobbles together everyone he knows and invests every dollar to make it a reality. It doesn’t matter whether or not Dolemite is good or if it had universal appeal or if the filmmaking is even remotely competent. What matters is getting it made.
The first act of Dolemite Is My Name, to be frank, is a bit slow because it’s more about Rudy as the individual rather than the collaborator. While it’s important for establishing his character, his friendships, and the rise of the Dolemite character, it doesn’t have the momentum the film garners once they try to make the Dolemite movie. That being said, the first act does give the film a notable edge in showing how important the Dolemite character is to the black community. Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t try to build up Moore as necessarily a transformative figure or a groundbreaking artist, but it does stress that he was an entertainer who aimed directly at black audiences and hit it big. And that’s the necessary groundwork to tell us why Moore is worth caring about as opposed to any other dreamer with stars in their eyes.
Once they start making Dolemite, the movie really sparks to life; however predictable its ups and downs might be and what the film may lack in depth, it makes up for in personality. And while I get the sense that this is a kinder and gentler version of the making-of events, the community spirit that permeates the entire film really shines here. It’s not necessarily that anyone thinks that they’re making “high art,” but they all believe in what they’re making. For Moore himself, it’s pure entertainment. He wants action, thrills, nudity and kung-fu. He’s making the movie he wants to see, and sure, he’d like to turn a profit, but he also genuinely thinks he has something to offer. While Murphy’s obviously the star here, the aforementioned community spirit comes to life through the film’s many big personalities, some drawn from real life — activist playwright and Dolemite screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), for example or egotistical blaxploitation star D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) — and others invented for the film. Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson and Mike Epps are also a constant, consistently funny presence in the film as Moore’s cocksure trio of smack-talking best friends.
But the real standout of the supporting players is Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a heartbroken woman Moore meets on tour who becomes his co-star, confidant and platonic companion. The chemistry between Randolph and Murphy is easy and affectionate — although, like all the relationships in the film, its nature isn’t interrogated with much intensity. But it’s genuinely moving when Lady Reed tells him, “I’m so grateful for what you did for, cause I’d never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen,” toward the end of the film. But at the center of all of this is Eddie Murphy. The casting of him as Moore is a stroke of genius on two counts first, it’s pleasure to watch Murphy draw from his own experience as a stand-up for the film’s backstage procedural scenes. Second, Moore blossomed from a likable guy into a supernaturally charismatic one when he stepped into character, and we see this same change in Murphy when he puts on the Dolemite hairpiece early on in the film. In terms of pure drama, Murphy isn’t challenged all that much here, but he also never fully loses himself in the role, although that may simply be a side effect of Murphy’s own fame. But when he’s all dressed up in the polyester suit and frilly shirt (Ruth E. Carter’s costume design is exquisite), turning toward the camera with the wide grin stretched across his face that made him famous, the thrill of remembering what a great comedic performer Eddie Murphy can be is electric.
Watching Dolemite Is My Name will encourage you get out of your head and just make whatever your thing might be. Yes, the film is largely a story of Moore’s success with every failure and roadblock merely a prelude to triumph, but you can also appreciate Moore’s tenacity and work ethic. He doesn’t act like he’s owed anything, and he knows that a Dolemite movie will be slam dunk if they can get it made and in front of audiences. If you’ve been sitting on some creative impulse because you don’t think anyone will make it or your friends won’t help you out or that no one will care, look at what Rudy Ray Moore accomplished back in his day. Now go make that thing and, in the immortal word of Dolemite, “Put your weight on it!” With a lively Eddie Murphy leading the charge, Dolemite Is My Name carries a loose, brash but always good-natured vibe for a proudly imperfect yet quite entertaining ride.