It’s funny how you sometimes develop respect for something you first thought was just a cultural oddity. Schlockmania first experienced Rudy Ray Moore’s films in college as party movies, the kind of thing that offered easy laughs via poor performances, wacky storylines, cheap production values, etc. However, there was something about these movies that inspired repeat viewings – and this offered a lesson in how entertainment value doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being slick or “good” in the conventional sense.
After enough screenings, a respect developed for the passionate creators who fought budget, lack of experience and film biz indifference to develop work that continues to resonate after a lot of big-budget “good movies” have faded away. Moore and his band of rebels took on a heroic quality, one cemented in Schlockmania’s mind forever after seeing Moore introduce a screening of Dolemite at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood to an admiring audience who roared with delight at the film’s quirks and attitude.
Finally, a Moore biopic has arrived in the form of Dolemite In My Name and it views him in the right “heroic underdog” frame. This film covers a key slice of Moore’s career, starting with Moore (Eddie Murphy) as a failed recording artist and nightclub M.C. sliding into middle age but still pining for success. Inspired by a wino’s folklore-derived rhyming humor, he refashions himself as a comedian who delivers raunchy humor in a proto-rap style. Once he achieves modest success, he realizes the only to take things further is make a movie – and he finds himself climbing the mountain once again, risking all for a dream that will justify his self-belief.
The above synopsis might sound serious for something that is at least half comedy but it also accurately reflects the dramatic core that lurks beneath the laughs and retro-camp elements of the film. Dolemite Is My Name takes Moore’s yearning for success and the hard work he did to become a cult figure seriously. Appropriately, writers Larry Alexander and Scott Karaszewski put the viewer right alongside Moore as he figures out how to develop the right persona for his audience and works out his own unorthodox methods to producing work outside the system (this approach is similar to their script for the acclaimed Ed Wood, which feels like an older sibling to this film). You might chuckle at Moore’s slipups along the way but you’ll also be won over by his thrill of discovery when things click for him.
Dolemite Is My Name also couches Moore’s success in the frame of teamwork. He meets a lot of colorful characters along the way and is willing to help them out, most notably Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a single mom he mentors into stand-up comedy and later co-stardom in Dolemite. Similarly compelling is the odd but successful partnership he forms with community-minded playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key), who becomes Moore’s screenwriter/co-star, and Nick (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a film school student who becomes a proficient cinematographer on the film set. The willingness of these characters to support each other in good times and bad becomes genuinely touching as the film progresses.
It also helps that Dolemite Is My Name is skillfully directed by Craig Brewer of Hustle & Flow fame. Visually, he manages a style that suggests Scorcese lensing a blaxploitation homage but what really makes his work tick is how he captures the thrilling rush of creative work. He’s not afraid to allow the audience to have a laugh at the ragged edges of Moore’s film production but he also shows the excitement of getting a scene in the can on a shoestring budget and the way it fosters a bond between Moore and his cast and crew. By the end of the shoot, it’s hard not to cheer them on.
Brewer also gets the right blend of comedic and dramatic moments from a gifted cast. Murphy is the obvious centerpiece, giving his most inspired performance in years as he mixes his famous camera-friendly charm and gift for off-hand wit with a newfound gravitas. He can make you laugh effortlessly but the way he expresses vulnerability and longing in key scenes is what really draws the audience in. There’s also strong work from Wesley Snipes, who is sarcastically hilarious as actor-turned-reluctant Dolemite director D’Urville Martin, and Key, who impressively channels the voice and mannerisms of Jones. That said, the best support comes from Randolph: the story poses her as Moore’s most reliable ally and a moment at the end where she expresses gratitude to him for his mentorship is tearjerker-caliber material.
In short, expect more from Dolemite Is My Name than a few laughs about a blaxploitation camp classic. It accurately recreates all the wack kung-fu, wild fashions and cardboard line deliveries of Dolemite but it also reminds you the people behind all those moments were earnestly pursuing a dream with full heart and soul invested. It meant doubly as much to this crew because they were (and are) historically underrepresented on the big screen – and the resulting chronicle of their rough-edged efforts is as poignant as it is nostalgically entertaining.