I was growing up in New Jersey, at an almost all Jewish or Italian-American high school, when I first learned about Rudy Ray Moore. A friend had Big Daddy Kane's tape Taste of Chocolate, which featured a diss war between the rapper and what was, to our ears, the dirtiest old man we'd ever heard. Naturally, we memorized the filthiest rhymes (still somewhat shocking decades later!) and took to repeating them whenever we could. One ended with a punchline I shall not repeat, but it included the phrase "please Mister Dolemite!"
The one African-American girl in our class nearly fell out of her chair. "How the hell do you guys know about DOLEMITE?!!?" she asked. "I don't know anything about Dolemite," I said (we had no Internet yet) "but he's hilarious. Tell me about Dolemite!"
She filled me in. He was a black action hero from the 1970s, like Shaft, but also kinda tubby and not particularly good at karate. Before he made movies he made X-rated comedy records; "party albums" recorded underground, not on college campuses like the George Carlin LPs I was obsessed with at the time. A whole other world.
Years later, and after Quentin Tarantino had fanned the flames to introduce "blaxploitation" to white audiences, I finally got ahold of VHS copies of Shaft, Superflyand Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, (this last one being far more experimental and jazzy than you might think). But there's a special kind of magic with the films of Rudy Ray Moore. Were they serious? Were they a joke? They were a mess on a technical level, but had a palpable energy — and were made for watching with a group of friends in a partying mood.
With Dolemite(1975), The Human Tornado(1976), and Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law(1977), the movies leaned into their minuscule budgets, reveling in their "hey, we're making some damn good entertainment here for you!" As a middle-class white kid in the 1990s I was very much not the target demographic, but a good time is a good time. And that vibe leaps off the screen in Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name, starring a magnificent Eddie Murphy in one of the all-time best performances of his career.
When I first heard Murphy was doing a biopic, I'll admit I rolled my eyes. Eddie Murphy is good on his own, people will one day be playing him. Why should he play Rudy Ray Moore? (Note for future reference: I don't know what I am talking about. This was the part he was born to play.)
Rudy Ray Moore was the larger-than-life pimp character "Dolemite" on stage and in movies, but before that he was a dreamer, a hustler, a striver. Originally from a broken home in Arkansas, he came to Los Angeles and tried to get into show business. He tried dancing, he tried singing, he tried working as a master of ceremonies for a nightclub telling awful jokes. But he never lost the dream. He had show biz in his blood.
When we first meet him here, around 1970, he's a clerk at a record store, grousing to his friends about his dead-end career. "How did my life get to be so damn small?" he wonders with his posse of similarly struggling artists (Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess and, eventually, Keegan-Michael Key).
But a light goes off when a local wino (Ron Cephas Jones) wanders into the store one day. He's looking for money, but he's also espousing "urban lore," handed-down stories, many of which rhyme, about colorful characters and their sexual exploits. Moore decides to record some the guy's tales, give them a rewrite, put on an exaggerated outfit and, voilá, Dolemite is his name.
He's an immediate hit in LA, then hits the circuit of black clubs in the South. After squeezing his Auntie (a hilarious Luenell) for some money, he records a demo tape. The comedy labels think it's too risqué so he releases the album himself. It becomes a sensation, and a small label gets interested in putting him to vinyl in a more legitimate way. More success comes. But when he goes to a Christmas showing of Billy Wilder's The Front Page(sorry Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau), he realizes that what Hollywood is offering doesn't mean squat to him or his community. Dolemite should be in movies.
From a certain point of view, Dolemite Is My Name is the most Libertarian film ever made. Rudy Ray Moore is 100% self-motivated and will stop at nothing until he achieves his goal. No one is ever going to lift a finger for a guy like him, so he's got to do it himself. "The people I talk to want a Dolemite movie!" he tells a money man. The timid investor says he's putting too much weight on his "small world" of just five blocks. "Yeah, but every city in America has the same five blocks!" he fires back, confident that the black community is starving for his kind of entertainment that even the other "blaxploitation" films are ignoring. He bets on himself and, ultimately wins.
This steadfast determination, minus the "winning," is quite reminiscent of the 1994 film Ed Wood, and there's a very good reason for that. The same screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, wrote Dolemite Is My Name. They've built a whole career out of making biopics about people who maybe ought not to get biopics (Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman for example), but there is a key tweak here. Rudy Ray Moore's output is, unless you are a drop-your-monocle-in-your-soup type square, actually good, mainstream entertainment.
There are some absent sections in this film. Not much on Moore's love life, for example. There's also some deep feelings of anger toward his stepfather that are only hinted at. Here's where a performer like Eddie Murphy really seals the deal. The "love story" aspect of the film is really with his companions, and that includes a platonic relationship with Da'Vine Joy Randolph as "Lady Reed," a full-figured on-stage comic sparring partner.
The biggest twist comes in the final half hour when you realize just how much you have at stake in Moore's success. Much to my surprise, I found the ending of this film deeply moving. It may be "the movies" launching away from reality (I have no intention of researching what really happened the night of Dolemite's premiere), but as cinema magic it is perfect. This isn't just a jokey comedy vehicle for Eddie Murphy, this is truly one of the year's best films.
Dolemite Is My Name is in limited release in theaters and premieres on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 25.