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.
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.
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.