Following a string of box office bombs, Eddie Murphy has mostly been absent from the silver screen, with his last two starring feature films being the mediocre comedies Mr. Church and A Thousand Words. However, this weekend, he returns to cinema with a powerhouse comeback performance and a strong hand in producing Dolemite Is My Name, a biopic about “The Godfather of Rap” Rudy Ray Moore’s rise to stardom upon the creation of the blaxploitation icon Dolemite, and it stands as one of the best movies of the year thanks to strong performances from its ensemble cast, a sharp script rife with hilarious dialogue as well as intimate character moments, and a soundtrack authentic to the funky sounds of the 1970s.
Eddie Murphy’s cinematic comeback begins in this biopic chronicling Rudy Ray Moore’s rise to stardom upon creating the blaxploitation-era icon Dolemite.
Movies about Hollywood always play well for the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, and one avenue of the industry that’s had its fair share of endearing stories translated from reality to the silver screen are those grounded in the niche of ‘so bad, it’s good’ cinema. 1994 saw Tim Burton direct his passion project about 1950s B-movie auteur Ed Wood, while 2017’s The Disaster Artist adapted Greg Sestero’s tell-all novel about his relationship and experience making the disasterpiece The Room with his friend Tommy Wiseau. Another film that fits the description of ‘so bad, it’s good’ cinema to a certain degree is the 1975 film Dolemite. Like most blaxploitation films of the time period, Dolemite was made on a shoestring budget with inexperienced actors and featured technical issues galore, from boom microphones appearing on-camera to crew members visible in the background of shots.
Despite that, however, there’s a certain charm to the novelty and energy of Dolemite. While films like Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song and Superfly aimed to tell dramatic stories about their lead characters escaping their turbulent lives of crime and drugs, Dolemite was made with the sole purpose of entertaining its niche audience with an uproarious story about the titular character’s ongoing war against The Man. The film succeeded in its mission upon release to the point of attracting a massive cult following that holds the film and its subsequent franchise in high regard to this day. But the account of how Dolemite came into being, and what he ultimately represents on-screen is incomplete without telling the story about its star, Rudy Ray Moore, and his rise to stardom as ‘The Godfather of Rap’, which is depicted in very entertaining fashion with the new Netflix comedy Dolemite Is My Name.
Dolemite Is My Name stars Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, who’s trying to break out as a musician in Harlem circa-1971, but faces rejection after the well-meaning radio DJ (Snoop Dogg) considers his music too outdated to play on his station. After venting his frustrations with record store regular Jimmy Lynch (Mike Epps) and co-worker Theodore Toney (Tituss Burgess), Moore and friends are visited by the community’s local homeless man Rico (Ron Cephas Jones), who tells them a rambling story in a series of tales about a foul-mouthed, all-powerful figure named Dolemite. This chance encounter inspires Moore to find Rico in the streets and gather every story about the titular character, and revises them to bring his vision of Dolemite to life as a profane, vulgar pimp in an on-stage standup comedy act.
Moore’s new stage routine is met with uproarious laughter and acclaim from the audience at his local nightclub, and Dolemite’s popularity sends Moore on a path toward recording numerous do-it-yourself comedy albums, all of which rise to the top of the Billboard charts. All is well for Moore and friends, but upon seeing the Billy Wilder comedy The Front Page and reacting to it with apathetic confusion, Moore concocts the idea of bringing the character of Dolemite off the stage and onto the silver screen for all African-American audiences to enjoy. From there, Moore meets with investors, playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan Michael-Key) and struggling actor/director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), and assembles a crew of local film school students led by cinematographer Nick (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) before embarking on his ambitious mission to turn Dolemite from a vulgar pimp to a cinematic hero in blaxploitation while running into the arduous struggles that come with DIY filmmaking on a meager budget.
And Eddie Murphy lends his hand in telling the story of Moore’s experience making Dolemite with uncanny perfection in what is his best lead performance in years; approaching the role with the same intensity and raw energy reminiscent of his standup material from the 1980s. Murphy never ceases to be engaging in telling the stories of Dolemite with animated exaggeration and landing every joke about his obliviousness to the world of filmmaking with impeccable timing, whether he attempts karate moves with a perfunctory level of skill or insisting to Jerry that the script of the Dolemite film should contain an exorcism. However, Murphy also demonstrates strong range in the film’s quiet, intimate moments, such as when Moore is alone in his giant studio glaring not only to his mirror reflection, but also to an old photo of his father, to which he rehearses his lines with reserved rage in a brilliant stroke of character work.
Murphy’s excellence trickles down to the rest of the cast: Wesley Snipes turns in a comeback performance of his own as director Martin, who channels his high standards as a performer with restrained but hilarious ego that is quick to turn to disbelief upon being challenged. Meanwhile, Da’Vine Joy Randolph brings what should be a breakthrough performance as Lady Reed, a comedienne Moore meets early on in the film while on a comedy tour, and Randolph delivers Reed’s dialogue with savage bite in a conversation with a white actor who lists all the blaxploitation villains he’s played throughout his career, and with hilarious endearment when finding to Moore that she doesn’t like getting her picture taken yet “a film camera is taking pictures of you twenty-four times a second!”
Dolemite Is My Name also succeeds in portraying the authentic and realistic struggles of DIY filmmaking, from self-financing and getting extra money from other financiers to finding a company to distribute your film to theaters nationwide, while also conveying the true yet hilarious nature of the constraints Moore and his crew had to work around while filmmaking, whether it’s resorting to steal power from neighbors when Moore’s studio had none, or creating the practical effects used to craft a sex scene.
If there are any issues that percolate throughout Dolemite Is My Name, it’s that there’s a potential perspective entirely left out: Moore achieved fame and fortune with Dolemite’s success on stage and on-screen, but it came after he obtained the stories from Rico. Given his status as the originator of Dolemite, his side to the story would be worth exploring, provided there was an eventual conflict between both men. It’s also worth noting that the obscene nature of Moore’s material and the raunchy obscenities throughout the film can be unappealing for certain audiences.
Those that can handle the unrestrained sense of humor will be well-rewarded, however, because Dolemite Is My Name aims to paint Rudy Ray Moore as a man intent on achieving stardom on his own terms after a lifetime of being told his dreams are unattainable, and giving his following a cinematic icon to manifest their rage against the system. Audiences will laugh over Murphy’s rendition of Moore’s on-stage material, root for him and his allies to succeed, tap their toes to the film’s funky soundtrack, and open their eyes in the hilarious yet authentic filmmaking scenarios in which he and his film crew find themselves. Regardless of how long he has been away from the film industry, comedy is and will always be Eddie Murphy’s game, and you can look for no further proof for that than Dolemite Is My Name.