On the Ultra-Black, Ultra-Funny “Dolemite is My Name”

Dolemite is my Name is one of the best times at the movies, currently available on your couch. Funniest movie of the year? Could be! Worthy Oscar contender? You betcha. Return of Eddie Murphy? He never left! The movie centers on the middle-aged, luckless, low-level entertainer Rudy Ray Moore (Murphy), who saw untapped potential within himself and his community, crafted his own story, made his own luck, and fought like hell to make his foul-mouth alter ego, Dolemite, a success onstage and on the screen. 

The film quickly proved itself different than anything else I’ve watched since these long streaming wars began. (So long). The phone went away, the pause button used liberally. Every moment was electric with either exquisite jokes or heart-wrenching tension, that never wanted to be “background.” 

I’m not good or smart enough for a “review” review. But some thoughts are in order. 

Dolemite Is My Name is black as hell. It’s set in South Los Angeles, in the 1970s, with a predominantly black cast, in a supremely black time, in a poetically black area. Black folk in period pieces are a rare but welcomed sight. Shit, black folks in any period, especially depicted in the media, as the leads and behind the scenes, is vital. The setting and era facilitating representation, in the present day that’s still far from perfect in promoting Black productions and stories, while depicting a time when it was even less so, is achingly ironic.

Oh the Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Lady Reed) of it all! Oh the Wesley Snipes (D’Urville Martin) of it all! If there’s a just God in this world, Randolph will be on every screen in the near future. She’s that special. Scathingly funny, sincere but never saccharine, truly the heart and soul of the movie. There’s nothing to say about Wesley Snipes that you won’t hear or read elsewhere. He’s fucking fantastic. His ability to transform his notoriety, condense it into a more grounded, comically unassuming shell, while retaining gravitas and maximizing hilarity—something akin to what Eddie Murphy reaches, with less screen time, and sniping from the edges—is such a kick ass performance. Tituss Burgess, conspicuous in his veracity, is bubbling to explode out on every scene, but gracefully just kills it. Mike Epps remains underrated. Craig Robinson remains undeniable. Keegan-Michael Key remains undefeated. 

Soul cinema, immensely important and impactful at the time, has become less revered since. The movies have been parodied to the point the originals feel too melodramatic and pastiche. That Rudy was making it a joke in the midst of the movement, is astounding. That he was sincerely serious, demanding sex, action, and all the fixings of the audience’s appetite, is the funniest truth of all. Rudy Ray Moore wanted to make something people like him liked, and he made the ultimate movie in that respect. 

Dolemite Is My Name is affecting as any documentary or “film about a film” biopic but as funny as any recent comedy. It’s the perfect middle child of Baadasssss! (How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass), Mario Van Peebles dramatic meditation on his father, Melvin Van Peebles, making the seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Black Dynamite, the blistering, brilliant, hysterical, precise tribute to the genre.

The stakes, thrills and failures of the creative process are always pressing on Murphy’s Moore, forming cracks in the sets, relationships and star alike. The uphill battle has everybody huffing. But it’s so damn funny! Dolemite Is My Name has more uniquely funny shit to say about plot holes, typecasting, crew titles, and film production in general than I’ve ever seen in a movie. 

And if you’re a creator that isn’t encouraged to pick up a pen, a camera, a microphone, whatever, after seeing this movie, maybe you should reevaluate. Every step, every scene encounters a new problem, met with glorious ingenuity. Small battles but beautiful victories, building to a crescendo of jubilation, that resonates beyond imagination. That’s the dream. 

Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore

Courtesy of Netflix

There’s an inspired bit of interplay at play. The down-at-birth origin story, familiar but original, and the Hollywood comeback, a tale as old as showtime. Rudy Ray Moore was an urban comedy legend while Eddie Murphy is a pop culture icon. Murphy has been famous before he could vote, Moore began his twilight before creating Dolemite. 

The two ultimately needed each other for this—the movie, the production, the accuracy, the quality—to work. For a story to this epic-yet-intimate scale to be done right, you needed an entertainment titan. For Eddie Murphy to feel mortal, you needed the life of Rudy Ray Moore. Murphy’s wattage really shines a light on how likeable and unlikely Dolemite is. Dolemite shows that anyone and everyone can be a star. 

We been known Eddie’s had chops, multi-talented out the ass. But rarely across a feature do we see highs and lows, frustration and elation, a haunting history and undeniable energy he accesses. Eddie Murphy’s still Eddie fucking Murphy. He’s got “it” on a multiplier more than Rudy Ray Moore hitherto undreamt of. It’s evident in the film (and prior) that Murphy is a better actor, better dancer, better comedian, more handsome, more successful, more “Eddie Murphy” than Rudy Ray Moore. But you believe it. Murphy successfully takes on an invisible yoke, with weary, stilted physicality. He feels kicked down and counted out, broken but not beaten. He doesn’t feel like the great actor, comedian, writer despite us consciously knowing otherwise. It’s a neat paradox. In your mind, Rudy gets to where he goes because of course he would, he’s Eddie Murphy! That Rudy Ray Moore got there first is awe-inspiring. And thus, Eddie getting to “Rudy” is remarkable.

If you’re looking for some subtextual, stranger than fiction read on the movie, what the movie means for its creators, it’s ultimate intent, allegories of a lion in winter or whathaveyou, it’s hard to make it. For what we know and don’t know about Eddie Murphy, the performance just is, a fascinating, emotional work of exceptional acting.

The only thing that is a true mirror the two is how limited we understand either comedian. What truly compels Rudy Ray Moore to covet fame so completely? Not sure. Understandably, people want fame and attention, but most pale in comparison to the hustling Rudy puts on display. Still, who is he?

What makes Eddie Murphy pick his projects? Is the passion and care in Dolemite is My Name the same as his more family fare? How soon before we get another one? Which creative decision is more consistent, more trustworthy? Fans are left wondering. Again, who is he? 

Even in the movie, when potentially shining a light on the subject or object, it pushes forward to just being a really good, well-told story. Eddie Murphy, and the Rudy Ray Moore he portrays, shies away from being too personal. Dolemite is My Name is filled with little moments: a look away, a glib comment, a deflection, a totem, a raw curse to the devils behind and below. These moments don’t say much but they say enough. 

Most of what make the men, Murphy and Moore, is left to inference, gossip and mystery. Fruitless to determine their internal measure by glimmers, shying from public consumption. It forces focus on their work (and achievements), good, bad or indifferent. Hard to deny how many people received supreme joy and esteem from the two comics, however their means. Hard to shy away from their respective works and perceived misses, the everlasting rough edges. Eddie Murphy, Rudy Ray Moore, and Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore, are compelling, complicated champions. At least Dolemite is my Name edges towards kindness, for what it’s worth.

And of course, it’s all bullshit as biopics all are. On first watch, we have no telling if this telling is accurate. To research too deeply may be heartbreaking. It isn’t necessary. That glow at the end, Dolemite among the people, a superhero come to life, the spark of joy and inspiration it evokes, that’s real. 

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