Netflix’s highly anticipated Eddie Murphy vehicle Dolemite Is My Name draws immediate comparisons to comedic biopics like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood—penned by the same screenwriters, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—and James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, that relish in the joyful chaos of dream-chasing and bad film-making. The story of blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore is captured through an affectionate lens by director Craig Brewer whose primary ambition in telling this story seems to reflect Moore’s modus operandi as an aspiring mainstream entertainer: give the people what they want. Unfortunately, Dolemite Is My Name relies so heavily on the built-in enjoyment factor of seeing a well-aged Murphy, at the start of a comeback tour portraying one of his predecessors, that it fails to investigate who Moore was when he wasn’t making art.
We first meet Rudy working at a Los Angeles record store where he unsuccessfully tries to convince the in-store radio DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play his music, while also moonlighting as an MC at a Black nightclub. When a local man (Ron Cephas Jones) walks into the record store one day rhyming about a man named “Dolemite,” Moore eagerly adopts this as his club schtick, even paying the man and his homeless group of friends to disclose their most obscene stories and jokes to incorporate in his act. Moore’s performance as Dolemite, that, among other things, includes bestiality jokes over a jazz beat, plays well with his audience and eventually larger Black communities when he starts making comedy albums.
One of the best moments in Dolemite Is My Name is the night Moore realises his desire to make a film or rather how much the white-dominated film industry needs him. Moore and his friends, played by Craig Robinson, Omar Epps and Tituss Burgess, go to the movies to see the Billy Wilder film The Front Page and are aghast by the roars of laughter they hear from the mostly white audience in response to what they consider a deeply unfunny movie. “This movie has no titties, no funny, no kung fu,” Moore says, exiting the theater, “the stuff people like us want to see.” From there, the movie launches into the graceless, inept film-making of Dolemite. To viewers’ pleasant surprise, Wesley Snipes steals the entire second act as the movie’s flamboyant director who rightfully raises an eyebrow at every choice Moore makes on set, including his choice to hire a white cinematographer to film Black actors. It’s these segments where Black artists are talking to each other about the aspects of film-making that matter the most to them that stand out in a film that’s largely lacking in its introspection of individual characters.
Like so, Dolemite Is My Name fails to examine the passion that’s bursting from Moore every moment he’s on screen. With a character as determined as he is, you can’t help but wonder about his demeanour when he’s not trying to convince a room of people that his ideas are great. There’s a scene in which Moore is practising his club act alone backstage and talks to a photo of his deadbeat father, who he brings up in another scene. But his acknowledgements of him are so brief that the film never really paints a full portrait of his trauma and how it’s impacted his sense of ambition. And considering that pain and weakness are motifs in most entertainment biopics, if not life, this movie just doesn’t feel complete.
Unlike this year’s other big film about the romance of film-making, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, that takes pleasure in depicting a specific period, Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t give viewers a sense of the cultural role of blaxploitation as as a unique genre, particularly right after the civil rights era. However, it does manage to celebrate the film industry’s role in bringing ordinary people joy and elevating certain underdogs, which means it will most likely be an awards favorite come this winter.
If you sorely miss seeing Eddie Murphy on screen, Dolemite Is My Name is certainly worth the watch. It’s a breezy, occasionally outrageous romp that’s solely interested in being just that. While the script doesn’t offer him much dramatic range, he’ll most likely earn his second Oscar nomination. And if all is right in the world, Wesley Snipes will earn his first.
Dolemite is my Name is now streaming on Netflix
by Kyndall Cunningham
Kyndall Cunningham is a freelance writer from Baltimore, covering film, television and pop culture. Her favorite films include The Parent Trap (1998), Moonlight, Fatal Attraction and Sister Act. She’s open to discuss any chick flick from the early aughts. You can follow her on Letterboxd and on Twitter @kyndallrenec.
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