Dolemite Is My Name ★★★★½

I had my doubts at first whether this movie was made with someone like me in mind. But hot damn, was this worth my two-hour gamble! I wouldn’t quite put “Dolemite Is My Name” up there with the absolute cream of the crop of 2019, but I’m struggling to recall a viewing experience this past year, especially on Netflix, that was this much of an unqualified joyride. Eddie Murphy, left for dead by critics, fiercely draws breath again, hollering into a microphone, gleefully rhyming and hurling insults at a cheering audience. He’s getting it all off his chest here, every punch line another middle finger to his detractors. It’s a rousing comeback for a genuinely hilarious man who had fallen on hard times and was stuck doing unworthy garbage for ages. His take on firebrand Rudy Ray Moore, who stumbled upon his fame largely by accident by tapping into a brand of humor that had always been there for the taking, but nobody had the guts or farsightedness to polish up for a stage act, is a grinning, charming doofus and lovable rascal, who does what he does to enthuse viewers first and make a living off of his act second.

In 1970s L.A, an urban melting pot of funk and disco, Rudy, a failed singer and stage performer, works at a record store, where he futilely tries to convince a skeptical DJ (a hilarious Snoop Dog cameo) to play his stuff on air. He has pretty much given up on striking it big and given in to a grouchy, hand-to-mouth existence, supplemented by occasional stage gigs introducing main acts. But a homeless person out of all people, whom Rudy had repeatedly thrown out of the store before, inadvertently hands him the idea that allows him to finally strike gold. Before long, Rudy Ray Moore, dressed flamboyantly like a street pimp and likely to spontaneously combust when stepping into a church, has bars and joints teeming with spectators to witness his unconventional act firsthand. Dolemite is his name and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is his game, and you better believe the whole country will know soon enough. But no longer content with fifteen minutes of fame, he is eager for a bigger platform. And after watching Billy Wilder’s “The Front Page” with some mates and utterly failing to get its appeal, he wants to deliver the goods his people go to the movies for. As he puts it: "This movie had no titties, no funny, and no kung fu!"

Equating Rudy with filmmaker, using the word in the loosest sense, Ed Wood is tempting. It’s no coincidence that Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo responsible for Tim Burton’s take on the undisputed Master of Trash in 1994, were assigned script duties for “Dolemite Is My Name”. But it's not an entirely fair comparison. Unlike Wood, whose colossal hubris prevented him from recognizing his shortcomings, Rudy is painfully aware of his limits. He hires D’Urville Martin, an idol in his community thanks to a minor part in Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" to star as the villain and direct the piece, even if the two never get on the same page about their artistic preferences. Wesley Snipes won’t win any Oscars for a performance like this, but his portentous condescension, nailing down the panache of a self-declared genius with a capital G is a much different, but just as funny brand of humor as Murphy’s. Rudy knows he has zero experience behind a camera, that his crew consists of his buddies and a bunch of film students, and that their effort is meant for a particular crowd that has fallen in love with his routine and is begging for more. There’s something immediately endearing about his wholehearted embrace of the ridiculousness on his set. Most of the shooting is taken care of via a hysterical extended montage, accompanied by the obnoxiously catchy “Dolemite, Dolemite, Dolemite, Dolemite” theme.

But there is a deeper, more sobering message here that begins to crystalize when studios en masse refuse to distribute the picture. Being an African-American filmmaker in the 1970s was a fool’s errand. The late John Singleton would only become the first black director to be nominated for an Oscar in 1991. “Shaft” hadn’t so much reshaped the landscape, but created a small, if profitable niche of films made by African-Americans for African-Americans (as a producer describes it here at one point). The formula is virtually foolproof for producers willing to contemplate it for longer than five seconds and don’t immediately dismiss it out of prejudice. If you can’t get convince black audiences to see films made by all-white people, that’s an untapped market. And Rudy is well aware of that too, and his motivations suggest that he is as intrigued by the possibility to be a star as for black people to have an icon to look up to. Someone who doesn’t care about the rules and gets shit done, regardless of how many white assholes tell him no.

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