DOLEMITE: An Inner City Celluloid Legend Is Born

The triumph of blaxploitation cinema was representation. Some viewers and critics quibbled with the validity/positivity of characters and plotlines involved in these films but no one can deny that a lot of talented black performers and filmmakers got their first chance to create entertainment for their own previously ignored segment of the viewing public in this subgenre of exploitation.

And it wasn’t just top black actors joining the fray.  Lots of different performers jumped through that window of opportunity in an attempt to expand whatever fanbase they had developed elsewhere into something grander.  Rudy Ray Moore, singer, comedian and all-around nightclub performer, is a memorable example of this latter group. After achieving underground fame via party albums and live performances, he saw blaxploitation as a way to hit the big time – and he put his personal money into a film venture.

Dolemite was the result and it was as ragtag and crude as any indie blaxploitation effort you care to mention – but it also allowed Moore to establish a brief but colorful career as a movie star for the inner city.

The film is a reflection of the larger-than-life persona Moore had created on his comedy albums. After being framed by the cops, he’s sprung from jail by a sympathetic warden and sent back to the streets undercover to get the people responsible. The obvious bad guy is rival pimp Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, who also directed) but the conspiracy also involves crooked Detective Mitchell (John Kerry) and political corruption in the ghetto that connects Green to the city’s halls of power.

That said, Dolemite’s got the help of business partner Queen Bee (Lady Reed) and she’s trained his stable of girls in the art of kung fu. There’s also assistance from Blakeley (Jerry Jones, also the screenwriter), who is also interested in ghetto corruption. Hastily choreographed fights and lots of rhyming ensue…

As a film, Dolemite is a mess. Jones’ script is erratic in plotting and structure, including a bizarre final 15 minutes that allows Jones to take over and reduces Moore to a supporting player in his own film. Martin was a neer-do-well director who openly disparaged the project to his collaborators and declined to put in serious effort. Thus, the filmmaking here is as raw as it gets – lots of scenes are covered in a rudimentary way, relying heavily on static mastershots – and there’s no end of fluffed lines and other gaffes in the finished product. The actors are left to their own devices so performances range from barely-there to wildly over the top. Even Moore is off his game at times, appearing hungover in a couple of scenes. The martial arts will remind you when you and your pals imitated kung-fu movies on the playground.

As a cultural event, Dolemite is a mindblower. Even when his line deliveries are off, Moore is a force of nature on screen: strutting, rhyming and just having a hell of a good time creating his own cinematic mythos. The film wisely makes room for him to do a few of his famous routines, “Shine On The Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey,” and these moments allow you to see how his mixture of scabrous humor, outlandish storytelling and crisp rhymes was an influence on hip-hop.

It also helps that the passage of decades has allowed the film to age into a fascinating time capsule. Even with the indifferent Martin at the helm, the film delivers a singular combo of funky sounds, ghetto fabulous decor/outfits, threadbare but gleeful action, pimpadelic cheesecake and street-level comedy that makes it one of a kind. The lopsided plotting ensures that each reel offers surprises you can’t predict – and the film exudes a lively “let’s put on a show” kind of excitement that keeps it compelling no matter how many times it slips off the rails.

In short, Dolemite may not always work the way it was intended but it’s an unforgettable relic of a time when anybody could get a movie made and get it out to an audience if they had the right level of intestinal fortitude.  Achieving representation against all odds was Moore’s triumph here – and it set the stage for him and his collaborators to create a singular body work that is like its own genre within blaxploitation.

Blu-Ray Notes: Dolemite was a staple of the VHS and DVD eras but it has found its best home video representation in the blu-ray/DVD set from Vinegar Syndrome. It offers an impressively colorful and detailed transfer as well as some cool supplements, including the first part of a multi-segment documentary, “I, Dolemite,” that is spread across all four of Vinegar Syndrome’s Rudy Ray Moore releases.

To read Schlockmania’s film review of Dolemite Is My Name, click here.

And for an analysis of Dolemite‘s unforgettable trailer, click here.

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