A Netflix-produced period piece set in 1970s Los Angeles, Dolemite Is My Name is a blast from the past, and it keeps the sparks flying from start to finish. The Eddie Murphy vehicle -which had a brief theater run and will debut on the streaming network this Fri., Oct. 25- is so over the top yet soulful in its message on perseverance, it’s easy to forgive its shortcomings, which include about a zillion too many F-bombs.
Fans of blaxploitation will recognize the name Rudy Ray Moore. His work would go on to inspire Samuel L. Jackson and Murphy in the way they spoke, acted and projected. Black exploitation as a genre has always been about color, and not just skin color — which is important — but a multicolored mise en scene, which attempted to reflect sexual liberation and hedonism of the times. These types of films filled the frame with confetti hues, splashy suites, sparkling Cadillacs and sexy polyester frocks, and the latter is done right here, via the costume work of Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther).
This Dolemite’s intelligent characters are even brighter than the retro visuals. Back in the day, exploitation audiences didn’t care about character development. As long as they could see black people on screen, and as long as they could see something that stuck-it-to-the-man, everyone left happy despite shallow story-lines and heroes. Here, however, one of the era’s biggest heroes is humanized.
Blaxploitation could also be stupendously superfluous. Thankfully, director Craig Brewer grounds his modern take beyond biopic conventions. As to not make his hero immortal, we see Moore starting at the bottom. During the day he’s got a job at a record store, where his stories about working with the great James Brown play like a broken record to customers. At night he tries comedy. His jokes bomb. That is, until one day when he hears the local homeless man rambling like a crazed preacher. (“He heard yo daddy’s a pimp and yo momma’s a whore! He saw you in the jungle selling yo ass door to door!”) Moore steals the explicit rap, reshapes it as stand-up comedy, then sells it to the public.
This wouldn’t be the first time Eddie Murphy sold us on a foul-mouthed good guy. The 58-year-old comedy icon has made a living playing characters that speak their minds, no matter how dirty those minds may be. Murphy is so damn likable that it doesn’t matter what he says. Whether he’s insulting an aristocrat’s wife in Trading Places, or roasting cops in Beverly Hills Cop, his goofy smile and giddy persona work as a get-out-of-jail-free-card.
“I’m the baddest motherfucker who ever lived,” Moore tells a studio producer. He and his pals have been the talk of the town because of their rhymes, but can they sell a movie? That’s where the story connects with the original Dolemite (1975). Moore tries to sell Dolemite as a pimps, drugs and kung-fu flick, but what he really wants to direct is a brand of entertainment that reflects true urban culture.
Brewer, working with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszweski, has made Dolemite Is My Name its own sort of party. There’s groovy music, flashy dancing, a number of nude album covers that will remind some viewers of Jackie Moon’s “Love Me Sexy,” and more Hollywood personalities than Altman could fit in The Player. It’s a treat to see so much talent in one place too.
Craig Robinson is terrific playing off of Murphy as his sidekick. Keegan-Michael-Key plays Dolemite’s substitute screenwriter, Wesley Snipes is back as a movie star turned director, Da’Vine Joy Randolph nearly steals the show as the infamous Lady Reed, and Snoop Dog and Chris Rock play the coolest radio hosts ever.
What’s special about this project is that the cast is all said to have an infinity for Rudy Ray Moore in real life. “I didn’t have to do any studying, since I’ve been watching his movies since I was a teenager,” Murphy told Variety at the Toronto International Film Festival when the film debuted. The actor’s performance is a loving ode to one of cinema’s greatest underdogs and his admiration for the character is obvious.
By making his film both a product of the exploitation genre and a satire on it, Brewer avoids being self-deprecating while always being hilarious. But it has to be said — Moore’s original work wasn’t very good most of the time. Still, his art featured an on-the-fly sensibility, much like this film does.
Yes, those who have seen the original will chuckle at the clumsiness of it all. The recreation of Dolemite ripping a man’s heart out is priceless. But what we take away from it — beyond some indelible rap lines and badass swagger — is a sense of who Moore really was, and the power of his drive to make a name for himself. He obviously did that very well.
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