Petey Wheatstraw 

Wednesday, Jul 12 2006

Rudy Ray Moore, as the cult figure Dolemite, has come to straddle multiple adoring worlds — those of grimy rap fans and artists (see: Ol’ Dirty Bastard), white hipsters and dry cultural-studies types. His profane, ass-kicking character, rooted in Negro folklore and oral traditions, is ripe for both playful emulation and high-brow deconstruction. The title character in Moore’s cult classic Petey Wheatstraw (1977) is cut from the same, blue-language, streets-informed cloth. As the opening credits roll, we see Petey’s mom give birth to the fully formed 9- or 10-year-old Petey, who comes into the world cursing and throwing punches. The broadly drawn and hilariously badly played characters wouldn’t be that out of place in Birth of a Nation. (Petey’s childhood sequences all look like outtakes from the Our Gang series.) Cut to the “present,” and Petey’s a successful Redd Foxx–style comedian who is assassinated by a business rival. Arriving in Hell, he makes a pact with Lucifer to marry the evil prince’s hideous daughter in exchange for the chance to return to Earth to avenge his death. The acting is atrocious, the writing is abominable, the gratuitous nudity is unsexy and the fight sequences look like school-yard kung-fu at a school for very special children. It is not to be missed. One fight scene — in which Petey whips a whole gang while wearing just a pair of underwear — is stomach-hurting funny, and his character’s schemes to outwit Satan and wriggle out of the deal are riotous. Moore, who recently suffered a mild stroke but is on the road to recovery, is scheduled to appear at the screening. (Steve Allen Theater, Sat., July 15, 8 p.m.)

—Ernest Hardy

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