This is a repost of my review from the 2019 Toronto International Film Fesitval. Dolemite Is My Name is now streaming on Netflix.
Regardless of how you feel about 1975’s Dolemite, you’ll likely get swept up in Craig Brewer’s joyous, upbeat ode to its creator Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite Is My Name. A film in the vein of “Let’s put on a show!” celebrations like Ed Wood (which shares Dolemite Is My Name’s writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and The Disaster Artist, Brewer avoids trying to paint a complex portrait of Moore and instead heralds him as a dogged, relentless dreamer who didn’t want to let anything stand in his way. Sure, it’s a little simple, but why should this blaxsploitation icon be denied his due? The biopic is a labor of love about an entertainer whose work was a labor of love. Yes, Moore wanted to be famous and successful, but he bets on himself and connects to black audiences. Both Moore and Dolemite become icons, and with Eddie Murphy giving a lively and memorable performance at the center, we can’t help but fall in love with this legend.
Beginning in the early 70s, we follow record store assistant manager Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy) struggling to break through as an entertainer any way he can. None of his previous characters or acts have taken off, but after picking up some inspiration from jokes and tales from the hobo community, Rudy seizes on the character of Dolemite, a rhyming pimp with no shortage of punchlines. The film tracks how Rudy relentlessly bets on himself because the entertainment gatekeepers don’t understand or won’t allow his comedy. When he needs to manufacture and sell his own comedy album, he does it. When it gets the idea to make a Dolemite movie, he cobbles together everyone he knows and invests every dollar to make it a reality. It doesn’t matter whether or not Dolemite is good or if it has universal appeal or if the filmmaking is even remotely competent. What matters is getting it made.
The first act of Dolemite Is My Name is a bit slow because it’s more about Rudy as the individual rather the collaborator. It’s important for establishing his character, his friendships, and the rise of the Dolemite character, but it doesn’t have the momentum the film garners once they try to make the Dolemite movie. That being said, the first act does give the film a notable edge in showing how important the Dolemite character is to the black community. As one detractor tells Moore, without the benefit of the entertainment gatekeepers, Moore will only be playing to five blocks, but Moore retorts that every city in America has those same five blocks. Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t try to build up Moore as necessarily a transformative figure or a groundbreaking artist, but it does stress that he was an entertainer who aimed directly at black audiences and hit it big. That’s the necessary groundwork to tell us why Moore is worth caring about as opposed to any other dreamer with stars in his eyes.
But once they start making Dolemite, the movie really takes off and you get into the collaborative spirit. While I get the sense that this is a kinder and gentler version of events (the biggest “ego” on set is director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) who just thinks the production is silly), the community spirit that permeates the entire film really shines here. It’s not necessarily that anyone—Moore included—thinks that they’re making “high art”, but they all believe in what they’re making. For Moore, it’s pure entertainment. He wants action, thrills, nudity, and kung-fu. He’s making the movie he wants to see, and sure, he’d like to turn a profit, but he also genuinely thinks he has something to offer.
You can tell that Murphy feels a kinship with Moore, and while it’s easy to bill Dolemite Is My Name as a “comeback vehicle” for the comic actor, it’s just a really good performance. Watch the film, I couldn’t help but think, “Murphy’s still got it,” and what’s more, he’s confident enough that he doesn’t have to hog the limelight. Snipes is delightful, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, and Tituss Burgess are all aces, and you are going to become a fan of Da’Vine Joy Randolph who has a breakout role as Moore’s friend and protégé. Murphy may be the lead, but like the entire film, the magic comes from everyone playing off each other.
Watching Dolemite Is My Name will encourage you to get out of your head and just make the thing. Yes, the film is largely a story of Moore’s success with every failure and roadblock merely a prelude to triumph, but you can also appreciate Moore’s tenacity and work ethic. He doesn’t act like he’s owed anything, and he knows that a Dolemite movie will be a slam dunk if they can get it made and in front of audiences. If you’ve been sitting on some creative impulse because you don’t think anyone will make it or your friends won’t help you out or that no one will care, look at what Rudy Ray Moore accomplished in the 1970s. Now go make that thing and, in the immortal words of Dolemite, “Put your weight on it!”