‘Dolemite Is My Name’ is loving tribute to ‘Godfather of Rap’

Dolemite
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Hollywood is no stranger to renditions of the American dream. From “The Wolf of Wall Street” to “The Disaster Artist,” the 2010s were rife with tales of wannabe yuppies and self-proclaimed artists who had more ambition than they knew what to do with. And yet, Eddie Murphy’s glorious return to R-rated comedy in “Dolemite Is My Name” is uniquely hilarious and heartwarming. Murphy stars in Craig Brewer’s 2019 biopic about the incomparable Rudy Ray Moore and delivers a performance equally as brash and charming as its subject. 

The film takes place in 1970s Los Angeles. At this point in Hollywood’s history, Black actors, except for a few stars such as Sidney Poitier, were subjugated to roles as underlings, villains and victims in mainstream films. Moore remains iconic today because of his refusal to play into the established studio roles. When told that his crude sense of humor would not sell to white audiences, Moore was not deterred. By producing his own films, he was able to place himself in the leading role and make films that represented those shunned by the establishment.

We meet Murphy’s Moore, a failed comedian and would-have-been R&B singer, working at a Hollywood record store that refuses to play his cheesy, unmarketable old singles. Having escaped a Depression-era upbringing of hard labor, Moore refuses to accept that he’s missed his shot at fame and yearns to rule the entertainment world. While moonlighting as a host at a small nightclub, Moore jokes to a disinterested audience that he spent six months on Broadway, “standin’ on the corner, trying to find a job.” 

Moore’s endless perseverance pays off when he hears the lewd stories of a homeless man named Ricco (played with remarkable nuance by Ron Cephas Jones) and decides to turn them into a comedic act. By taking up the boisterous persona of the hustling, kung fu-wielding Dolemite, Moore is elevated from the sidelines of history and becomes a cult movie legend. As he enjoys newfound success, Moore continues to struggle with his responsibility to his friends and his community.

Murphy’s energetic lead performance is balanced by a stellar ensemble cast. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski craft a touching relationship between Moore and his performing partner Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who further subverts stereotypes by commanding an authority that rivals Moore’s. Wesley Snipes and Keegan-Michael Key are also standouts. The film’s unrelenting pace comes at the expense of some dramatic depth and occasionally reduces the outstanding cast to vignettes, but Snipes and Key shine through as the “Dolemite” filmmaking duo, director D’Urville Martin and writer Jerry Jones respectively. Although much of the comedy in the film is derived from these characters’ inabilities to reach their lofty ideal of “keeping it real,” Snipes and Key retain a dignity in their portrayals. “Dolemite Is My Name” is ultimately a celebration of film as a representational art, no matter how amateurish it might be. 

The Dolemite persona was first used by the real-life Moore for his comedy albums, in which he used a rhyming, profanity-laden style inspired by traditional Black humor and blues music. Moore often incorporated such characters as the “Signifying Monkey” and “Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law” into his obscene and salacious act. These albums, in addition to blaxploitation classics “Dolemite,” “The Human Tornado” and “Disco Godfather,” were celebrated by the decades of hip-hop artists and rappers who followed. Moore, who passed away in 2008, was later dubbed “the Godfather of Rap” and Snoop Dogg even name-dropped Dolemite in “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.

Moore’s films represent the pinnacle of blaxploitation cinema because they parody the stereotypes that he refused to accept. Despite playing a pimp who has been incarcerated for “stolen furs and narcotics,” Moore is the irrefutable hero of the Dolemite movies. Reversing the stereotypical racial representation of mainstream film, white actors were cast almost exclusively as villains, often in positions of authority such as “rat soup eating” wardens and racist cops. Dolemite frequently uses his power to benefit his neighborhood and he fights off the forces of evil to protect a community made vulnerable by societal bigotry.

In examining Moore’s struggles to gain equal representation in an industry that ignored a massive audience and favored a narrow view of the commercially acceptable, the biopic uses a portrait of the past to illuminate current issues in Hollywood cinema. In the film, Lady Reed thanks Moore for casting her, telling him, “I haven’t seen anybody that looks like me up on the big screen.” In faithfully retaining Moore’s entrepreneurial spirit, “Dolemite Is My Name” argues for a future in which such words no longer need to be uttered.

“Dolemite Is My Name” is available on Netflix.

“Streaming Diaries” articles are recommendations from Daily Cal staff members on underrated content available on streaming platforms.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].