Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
Though Eddie Murphy has never stopped working since his explosion onto the media scene in the early 1980s, thanks to first Saturday Night Live and then hits like 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, his prominence in our culture dipped in the 1990s, as did the availability of interesting roles. It’s hard to remember just how young he was when his star blazed the brightest: born in 1961, he was only 23 when Beverly Hills Cop became the #1 hit of 1984. Looking back at that film, and at all of his performances of the era, one marvels at the man’s preternatural presence and talent. Unfortunately, some of his skills were put to use in standup routines justifiably condemned for their homophobia (which he, himself, acknowledges and has apologized for), but with the right material, he was a wonder to behold. How nice that he now has a part worthy of a comeback.
The real-life Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008) never achieved anything approaching the wild success of Murphy, though he had his moment in the sun and is now considered, based on the rhyming patterns he developed in his routines, the “godfather of rap.” When we first meet him in early 1970s Los Angeles, at the start of Craig Brewer’s new film Dolemite Is My Name, he is a failed has-been of a singer and comedian, reduced to brief stints as an MC at a local nightclub while spending his days managing a record store. Middle-aged and dissatisfied, he is nevertheless convinced that his best moments lie ahead. One day, while kicking out an overexuberant vagrant from his shop, he realizes that the man’s rants, rooted in the African American experience, crude as they are, might offer him the just the kind of jokes he needs for a new act. Tape recorder in hand, he heads down to skid row and gathers all the stories he needs, many featuring a fictional character named Dolemite, working them over until he shapes them to fit his own style. Soon, dressed in a flamboyant new outfit, he is back on stage with a growing cult following; comedy albums follow, and then, ultimately, a movie.
This was the blaxploitation era, when trafficking in urban stereotypes of black Americans was milked for as much money as possible. With his bright-colored suits and wide-brimmed hats (which his first nightclub boss likens to pimp clothes), Moore as Dolemite fit right in. Unfortunately, the obscenity-laced act was not an easy sell beyond the so-called “chitlin’ circuit,” but dollars are dollars, and after the underground success of a self-produced record, Moore was finally able to attract the support of legitimate distributors. It’s when he dreamed even bigger that things got complicated, and when this movie becomes especially entertaining.
The bulk of the second half centers around the production of Moore’s first film, the 1975 Dolemite. Watching people who know nothing about what they’re doing attempt to pull off a movie is great fun, and given the essential hopefulness and sweetness at the heart of Moore’s dreams, we can’t help but root for the motley crew. The cast is uniformly excellent. Beyond Murphy as Moore, we also have: Da’Vine Joy Randolph (TBS’ People of Earth) as his performance partner Lady Reed; Tituss Burgess (Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) as his hapless assistant manager and later assistant director; Keegan-Michael Key (Keanu) as a very patrician playwright hilariously engaged to write the decidedly non-patrician screenplay; Wesley Snipes – the eternal Blade – as the alcoholic D’Urville Martin, an established blaxploitation star hired as the movie’s director; and many more, all of whom shine.
Not all jokes land, and there are times when the script falters, but overall this is a fine vehicle for everyone involved. For a film so rooted in America’s black experience, however, it’s a little jarring to see it helmed by a white director (with a screenplay by two white writers). Then again, this is not Craig Brewer’s first time in this territory: witness the equally exploitative Hustle & Flow and (the even more problematic) Black Snake Moan. Perhaps, given the cynical Hollywood forces behind the original blaxploitation era, there is no one more appropriate to direct this paean to Moore’s Dolemite. Wherever you land on that issue, there is no question that Murphy and his supporting ensemble deserve our full attention and praise.