Promoted as a biopic about Seventies Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite Is My Name is also Eddie Murphy’s comeback. Its retro subject promises a cultural essence similar to the star’s most fascinating films: Harlem Nights, his Nutty Professor movies, Norbit, Meet Dave, Boomerang, A Thousand Words, and Life (the unfairly overlooked team-up with Martin Lawrence about old-time incarceration that predates and far surpasses recent prison-industrial-complex platitudes).
So this is not the return of the SNL, 48 HRS., Beverly Hills Cop Eddie Murphy that the mainstream adores, but the esoteric Eddie.
Strange that Hollywood’s most popular black comic actor since Richard Pryor should seem cryptic when reclaiming his roots, but when box-office popularity has waned, Murphy has always fallen back on gut instinct (Vampire in Brooklyn and Life). The problem with Dolemite Is My Name is that Murphy’s appreciation of Rudy Ray Moore is misinterpreted by his colleagues.
Director Craig Brewer and screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander try their shallow best. They present Rudy Ray Moore — who invented the character named Dolemite, a swaggering, foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, comic version of the black detective character Shaft — as if it were Moore’s own persona.
Showbiz fact: Moore shrewdly carved a comedy niche for himself. His appeal never went beyond African-American subculture and was limited even at that. His raunchiness, first developed in stand-up routines and adult “party” records, was considered risqué, low-class, and “country” — like grossly vulgar gut-bucket blues songs.
But Brewer repeats the framework of Hustle and Flow, his 2005 drama about grassroots hip-hop, while Karaszewski and Alexander repeat their eccentric biopic formula (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Big Eyes). Without relating to the essence of Moore’s comedy, or finding the roots of his ambition, they’ve designed a wardrobe — Dolemite’s satirical, outlandish, “black private dick” pimp attire — that Eddie Murphy never adequately fits.
While watching Dolemite Is My Name, one holds to the hope that Murphy will connect with Moore’s shtick, but this film steadily disappoints its promise. In the Ava DuVernay era, black hustlers are celebrated as entrepreneurial ideals, but Moore just wanted to get-over. After years of working third-rate nightclubs, dancing and singing, he finally found a way, even when researching — stealing — ideas from street bums. (Michael Wright, who was unforgettably chilling in Altman’s Streamers, defends his forgotten social place: “I’m not a hobo; I’m a repository of Afro-American folklore.”)
Black folklore itself trips up the filmmakers’ good intentions. In the post-Obama era, they cannot think how to present Moore’s bawdy repertoire or appreciate that it was enjoyed by post-civil-rights, Blaxploitation audiences. (Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” — not “What’s Goin’ On” — sets an authentic tone in which low, sexual humor raises spirits.) Equating Moore’s eccentricity with the oddball perversity of Ed Wood is insulting. Don’t the filmmakers know that the Dolemite movies were popular while Ed Woods’s films were freaky sub-camp curiosities? Not all Hollywood outsiders are the same.
Murphy himself could have been the ambassador to Rudy Ray Moore’s world (his 1980s concert films Raw and Delirious remain favorites among nostalgic young rappers who were emboldened by Murphy’s profanity and effrontery). But there’s insufficient focus on Moore’s blatant cunning. He encouraged zaftig Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who has a lovely, warm screen presence) to vent her female protest against abusive men (telling her that “some people have their own personal spotlight”). But here, their empathetic teamwork lacks the bawdy insouciance of the Dolemite films and the Moore-Reed comedy albums. Moore’s talent — realizing the emotional release of talking dirty — is never given its props.
Moore’s struggle was different from Murphy’s. Hollywood beckoned Murphy, while Moore had to scratch his way up showbiz’s lower rungs. Moore measured himself against black comic pioneers (“Vaudeville is over. I’m not Pigmeat Markham or Moms Mabley”). He also resented and challenged them, embracing raunch as honesty — the plain talk of a disenfranchised people claiming libidinal power. In Moore’s Dolemite films (The Human Tornado being the best of them), his exaggerated masculine prowess (in fact, a doughy version of studly Jim Brown and Fred Williamson) encapsulated the dreamed-for essence of militant-era blackness — what academics would later call “agency” and others called fun.
Dolemite Is My Name is almost a cautionary tale for those who won’t follow DuVernary’s politically correct example. Murphy’s best moments convey personal resentment: Moore curses at a photo of his abusive stepfather (“I’m Dolemite, you f***ing farmer!) and cries the ultimate expression of American frustration: “How my life get so small?” These scenes show Murphy’s great talent, but the film’s comic scenes don’t. Moore and his troupe dress in-character for a Dimension Pictures business meeting, as if they were circus folk — it’s all wrong. The filmmakers urge us to look at them with condescension.
Moore and Murphy share secure places in pop history, so Dolemite Is My Name disappoints by neglecting anthropological details: the Seventies white-flight that turned once-resplendent urban movie palaces into hovels, thus balkanizing black culture and leaving black performers desperate for mainstream acceptance. (Wesley Snipes’s drunken, queer portrayal of actor D’Urville Martin, who directed the first Dolemite film, is unaccountably insensitive, as if Snipes were projecting his own bad reputation upon an ancestor.)
Dolemite Is My Name never bridges low/high taste. The split is succinctly demonstrated when Moore watches the 1975 Billy Wilder film The Front Page and complains, “No titties, no funny, no kung fu.” He’s right, of course, but Quentin Tarantino might be the only living director who could put that response in appropriate context. Murphy’s Moore says, “I want the world to know I exist.” Just imagine Samuel L. Jackson saying that, but differently.