It’s almost impossible to watch Eddie Murphy take on the character of world-famous stand-up performer/blaxploitation actor/rap pioneer Rudy Ray Moore and not wonder what took him so long to do it. The fit seems so effortless—almost necessary—that you forget within minutes where one actor begins and the other ends. Perhaps Murphy needed to meet director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan, and Murphy’s upcoming Coming To America sequel) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt) for it all to move into place, but Dolemite Is My Name feels so right and is executed so deftly that you realize it takes genuine filmmaking artistry to make a movie about one of the truly great amateur productions in film history.
Set in the heart of the 1970s, the movie isn’t just about the making of 1975’s Dolemite, which the New York Times called “the Citizen Kane of Blaxploitation.” Dolemite Is My Name sets the stage for what feels like an organic progression Moore took from struggling stand-up comic telling corny, R-rated jokes at strip clubs to creating the Dolemite character. It’s a character based on a combination of the fast-talking street hustlers he’d known all his life, who would create self-aggrandizing poetry about their sexual exploits, and flashy pimps, many of whom lived those exploits in real life. But the all-black audiences he was playing to responded with such enthusiasm that he took the next step and recorded a live comedy album that was so dirty no record label would put it out. So naturally, Moore sold it at gigs and out of the trunk of his car and made a small fortune.
The success of that first album eventually did get him a record deal, and astronomical sales made him the superstar that he already was in his head. Murphy’s embodiment of Moore’s mannerisms is so dead on that you can only sit back in amazement at what is easily one of his greatest acting accomplishments. It’s also wonderful to watch Murphy embrace his R-rated roots—make no mistake the language and attitudes of the movie are colorful (mostly the color blue), but the four-letter words trip off Murphy’s tongue like he invented them.
On tour in the south, Moore meets Lady Reed (a true standout performance from stage veteran Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose straight-forward outlook on life and quick wit appeal to his sensibilities. And before long, she was part of his show, singing dirty songs with her powerhouse voice. Speaking of great singers, the film also features Craig Robinson in a terrific performance as musician Ben Taylor, a long-time friend of Moore’s who ended up writing and performing the theme song to Dolemite.
After a couple years of making records and successful touring, Moore got the idea to make a movie based on the Dolemite character. According to history, he and some friends went to see Billy Wilder’s The Front Page and could not figure out why the mostly white audience was keeling over with laughter. The experience sparked the idea to create a black film for black audiences, complete with a lead character they already knew and loved, loads of kung-fu (even though he didn’t know martial arts), gun play, explosions, and pretty (frequently naked) women in a story about fighting back against The Man. Borrowing money from his record company and enlisting the aide of black playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) and actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), who played an adversary and also directed, the rocky beginnings of Dolemite were launched. For his crew, he tapped a small group of dedicated film students, led by Nick (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a bean pole of an awkward white kid who was instrumental in getting the movie made for no budget.
The are points in the second half of Dolemite Is My Name that feel incredibly similar to what James Franco did with The Disaster Artist, and that’s not a criticism. And it’s not just the exceedingly funny behind-the-scenes exploits that make it feel the same; it’s the way director Brewer captures the driving energy of the creative spirit. Even if you think what Moore was doing was obscene, there’s no denying that the man was a genuine artist with a complete and well-conceived vision for what he wanted to create and, most importantly, who he wanted to create it for. He saw his community as being underserved by Hollywood, and wanted to make something that checked all of the boxes for them. It was a risk that could have broken him financially and spiritually, but anyone who knows their film history knows that’s not what happened, and he ended up making something that audiences of all colors connected with and celebrate to this day.
Above all else, Dolemite Is My Name is one of the funniest damn movies of the year, and not because Murphy and company are lining up the jokes in rapid succession. They simply have to tell this outrageous story the way it happened, and the laughs simply flow. The reality is so unbelievable that you can’t help but admire and be utterly charmed and entertained by its retelling. One can’t ignore that it’s also a beautifully made film—from the production design to the costumes by Ruth E. Carter (who just won an Oscar for her work on Black Panther) to the cinematography by Eric Steelberg, who makes every scene pop with warm colors. So much so that it would be a shame if you didn’t make the effort to see this Netflix-produced film on the big screen. It’s honestly one of the most thoroughly enjoying movies of the year.
The film opens for a limited theatrical run today (it seems like you may have to travel to the furthest reaches of the suburbs to find it) and arrives on Netflix on October 25.
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