Every now and then, a movie energizes me in unexpected ways. When I first saw Animal House, I immediately wanted to start a food fight in the cafeteria. Aliens excited me so much, it remains the only film where I turned around and saw the very next showing. Now, along comes Dolemite Is My Name, from director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood) and it makes me wanna drive around the country with a bullhorn shouting at everyone to drop everything and watch this hilarious, engaging heartwarming, fantastic, true story of a film.
Eddie Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a down on his luck 1970 Los Angeles entertainer. When we first meet him, he’s trying to get some of his musical recordings past a DJ (a funny Snoop Dogg) at the record store where they work. We see in this scene how Rudy handles rejection. He’s confident and unflappable, which makes you instantly fall in love with him. “A man slams a door in my face,” he says, “So I just find another door.” How could you not want to follow a character like this wherever he goes? As his aunt (a perfect Luenell) hears about his comedy aspirations, she lists out his other talents, which includes singing and…wait for it…shake dancing. Murphy finds the never-say-die energy of this man to make you believe he could do pretty well on the non-existent shake dancing circuit.
At night, he tries to win over an audience with hack jokes, but he soon realizes he lacks a clear voice. Like any good writer, he looks around for inspiration and finds it with a group of homeless men in his neighborhood. One man in particular, Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) spins vulgar tales with such elegance, it sounds like early rap. Rudy turns this into his alter ego, Dolemite, a cane wielding, suave pimp, who electrifies the usually docile crowd at the club.
Soon thereafter, Rudy gets a comedy record deal and takes his act on the road. Although a regional success, Rudy has an epiphany in a movie theater one night and realizes he could reach a larger audience and not have to tour as much if he were to make a film. The rest of the story gloriously shows us the process of making his first movie, Dolemite, and creating a sensation as a blaxploitation star. Rudy’s can-do spirit may not have made him as big of a name as Ron O’Neal or Pam Grier, but many have mentioned his character as an inspiration in the rap and hip hop world. The man left a fantastic legacy.
Much like Ed Wood, the film serves as a beautifully specific look at fringe filmmakers struggling to get their movies made. Murphy clearly knows Rudy’s world and invests his character with unforgettable detail and power. It may play to Murphy’s comedic style, but his more serious moments never feel melodramatic. He stays true to Rudy’s undying will.
While Murphy delivers a galvanizing performance and deserves every award, he heads an extremely strong cast. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jerry, a playwright Rudy ropes in to write Dolemite. Jerry wants to write important plays and haughtily resists the lowdown quality Rudy requires, and it’s a joy to watch Jerry come around to embrace the bad acting, the karate chops, the terrible gun play and the insane slapstick. Tituss Burgess (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), Mike Epps, and Craig Robinson contribute fun performances as Rudy’s support staff, with Tituss playing a more subtle type of gay man than his signature Titus Andromedon. It works and with Murphy’s past issues with gay material, it’s delightful to see him thriving opposite Tituss for such a large chunk of the film. Fun fact: Kodi Smit-McPhee plays real life UCLA film student and Dolemite cinematographer, Nick von Sternberg, son of the legendary director, Josef von Sternberg. His entrance into the film, wherein novice filmmakers meet even more novice filmmakers, makes for one of the many gems this movie has in store for viewers. We haven’t even talked about the shaking bed scene, the outrageous car chase, or the iconic moment the gang put on their finest to meet with the suits and strut towards camera in slow motion.
Wesley Snipes makes a fantastic return to movies with his scene stealing role as D’Urville Martin, a pretentious, semi-successful actor Rudy hires to direct Dolemite. When the production runs off the rails, D’Urville’s reactions could serve as a roadmap to a perfect character arc. Just watching him call “Action” alone has provided me with endless, gleeful replays. Welcome back, Wesley! Forget action films. Comedy needs you!
Everyone, however, needs to move over and acknowledge Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Lady Reed. Rudy meets this defiant, larger than life firecracker on the road and immediately hones in on a life of pain which would make for a great comedienne. Their double act is hysterical, but as she joins the cast of his film, she transforms into a gorgeously generous woman whose gratitude for being put on screen made for the first of many times I outright bawled.
Brewer does an excellent job of keeping this juggernaut moving along at a crisp pace, and he nails the period details. Alexander and Karaszewski’s writing gives us characters not only to root for, but to yearn for and wish them happiness. It may not be the deepest film, but it moved me. They walk a fine line between laughing at the cinematic ineptitude on hand and finding true value in how it made the black community feel. Behind the laughter, people felt empowered. People felt strong. People felt they had a film genre of their own. In the final scene of the film, they lay it all out there and damned if I wasn’t sobbing. I felt that rare energy I always want from a movie. So of course, I immediately texted a friend with, “Watched Dolemite Is My Name. Holy Christ is it good!”
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Dolemite Is My Name gets a 20 out of 50. The fact that Eddie Murphy stars in a movie opposite an out gay actor playing an out gay character warmed my heart. The fact that the character never serves as a punchline but still realistically gets shot down in one scene for his openness makes the experience feel less like pandering and more like the reality of the early 1970s. Well played.
By Glenn Gaylord
Dolemite Is My Name is currently streaming on Netflix at Netflix.com/DolemiteIsMyName