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Film Review: Dolemite is My Name

Dolemite is My Name (2019; Directed by Craig Brewer)

Halfway through Dolemite is My Name, Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) and his buddies are dining out, celebrating the surprising success of the ribald, streetwise rhyming pimp African-American stage character that he’s created. At Moore’s urging, they decide to attend The Front Page, an acclaimed, sophisticated Billy Wilder comedy feature starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau that he’s read is a new comedy classic. Surrounded by a mostly white audience’s laughter, Moore and his black friends can’t understand what’s so funny. The humour doesn’t land for them, just as Dolemite’s baudy, strutting routines don’t appeal to the comic sensibilities of white audiences in quite the way that they appeal to black ones. It’s a sort of thesis statement moment for Dolemite is My Name, and it also vitally catalyzes Moore’s quest to make a movie that will make his own people laugh in the way that The Front Page makes a white audience laugh.

Dolemite is My Name is, in this way, very nearly a meta-commentary on the career and work of its star, Eddie Murphy. Conventional film scholar/celebrity history wisdom on Murphy holds that after bursting into blazing superstardom in the early 1980s via Saturday Night Live, Beverly Hills Cop, and his Delirious stand-up comedy special, Murphy couldn’t get a handle on his fame and effectively translate his meteoric talent into consistently good movie work. But is this narrative racially predetermined, like so much in America, entertainment very much included? Does the yawning gulf between The Front Page and Dolemite mapped out in this movie also apply to the last quarter-century of its star’s film oeuvre? Do African-American audiences turn their noses up at The Nutty Professor and Norbit and his braying voiceover work from the Shrek movies? Do white audiences, even? Has the long tail of his post-1990s career, with frequent ill-suited family-friendly sojourns, been incontrivertibly poor, or does it shift and change when viewed in different lights? Hollywood hasn’t known what to do with Eddie Murphy for quite some time, but he’s hardly the only African-American screen megastar in that situation (Will Smith is on Line 1, sir).

Dolemite is My Name is a sort of repositioning for Murphy nonetheless, a pivot back to profane adult-oriented comedy, albeit with softer edges of mature melancholic self-doubt and inspirational can-do crowd-pleasing spirit. The film was directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan), known for making films couched in African-American experience and anchored by strong core performances but that look and feel suboptimally less-than-cinematic (how apt for the Age of Netflix film releases, which this movie is one). It was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters of Ed Wood, one of the best films ever made about the sort of low-budget, Z-grade, misfit moviemaking that Hollywood loves to romanticize, laugh at, and smugly turn its back on at the same time. Stitch these creative profiles together with Murphy’s own predilections as a performer and his deep admiration for Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite character and its broad influence on his own comedy (as on black culture of the past 40 years in general), and the final result is Dolemite is My Name.

Moore was originally from rural Arkansas, though he also lived across the Midwest, in Seattle, and even went to Germany as a US Army serviceman. Dolemite is My Name commences in the early 1970s in Los Angeles, with Moore working at famous record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood by day and introducing acts at a club by night. Even as he ages and faces his limitations, Moore dreams of entertainment success and hustles the record store DJ (Snoop Dogg, another avowed acolyte of Dolemite who has emphasized the character’s influence on hip hop) to play his singing record and tries to squeeze attention-catching jokes into his brief emceeing slots at the club. It all seems to be for naught until the half-insane rantings of a record-shop-invading streetperson named Ricco (Ron Cephas Jones) catch Moore’s attention as he ushers the man out the door.

Ricco’s ramblings consist of rough-hewn, foul-mouthed rhymes derived from African-American folklore and run through the hard realities of urban poverty. Moore follows Ricco to a homeless encampment and collects more like-minded material from other streetpeople. He refines and rehearses the shtick, then thunderously unveils it at the nightclub done up in the flamboyant suit-and-cane attire of a pimp, to a raucous and enthusiastic reception. His profane, boasting, sexually-explicit comedic story-rhymes in character as confident player Dolemite quickly gain a loyal following in the local black community, and he grows his profile with relentless DIY energy. Moore can’t afford studio time to record a comedy album, so he cuts it in his apartment with an invited audience; when no record company will release something so obscene, he borrows funds from his aunt to press copies and sells them out of his trunk. He toils on the Chitlin’ Circuit in the Deep South while the album’s popularity grows, and with the marketing help of an intrigued record company, it even charts on Billboard.

The rise of Dolemite takes up about half of the film, and the making of the character’s kung-fu blaxploitation movie debut Dolemite occupies its latter half. Perpetually short on funds and rife with semi-professionality, the production utilizes the entirety of Moore’s entourage behind the camera and in front of it, as well as some white film school students (the film buries the lede, but one of these is the cinematographer, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is actually the son of legendary Hollywood director Josef von Sternberg). The frustrations and triumphs of movie production are entertainingly portrayed, and Moore has to go the DIY route to distribute the movie as well, before it reaches its eventual status as a celebrated B-movie classic.

Murphy’s performance as Moore and as Dolemite synthesizes the most successful and rewarding portions of his wide-ranging entertainment career, combining the cocksure swagger of his peak standup work with the warmth and thoughtful self-critique of some of his latter-day dramatic roles. Moore wheedles and hustles to make his dreams of fame come to fruition, but is granted moments of deflation, doubt, and inadequacy, and a few scenes touch on the physical abuse of his father, which lights a fire of chip-on-his-shoulder motivation. As comeback performances go, it’s a fine one, a reminder of what Murphy can be at his engaged, dynamic best.

But he doesn’t bogart the spotlight, allowing co-stars to shine as well: Keegan-Michael Key is an amusingly earnest realist-playwright-turned-kung-fu-pimp-movie-scribe, Craig Robinson is a jolly musician buddy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays a sharp-tongued single mother who becomes Moore’s unlikely comedy protégé and confidante (and closest thing to a love interest, though not actually that close). It’s another long-dormant black movie star mostly done dirty by the vagaries of the Hollywood system who really steals the show, however: Wesley Snipes as Dolemite‘s director and onscreen villain D’Urville Martin, who appeared in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and thus considers himself to be a film artist of the highest order. Snipes’ Martin swans around in prancing princeliness and delivers his lines like he’s wetly slapping each word as punishment for stealing a spoonful of his lobster bisque. He steals each scene he’s in, and it’s a testament to Murphy’s ability to subsume ego to art that he lets Snipes get away with it.

Dolemite is My Name is not a great film, and it suffers from the biopic’s classic structural issues and Brewer’s workmanlike lack of ambition (the too-unkind phrase “the black Ron Howard” comes to mind when considering his direction). But it’s funny enough and generous in spirit, and approaches racial divisions thoughtfully and gently but without illusion. If it doesn’t quite fit in with the more critical and even radical cohort of recent African-American cinema, then it isn’t really trying to. Dolemite is My Name is about a black artist and entertainer carving out a considerable niche appealing specifically to black audiences without much intent or hope for mainstream (read: white) crossover. If its milieu smacks of the segregated ghetto, then it also invokes a robust and proud sense of cultural community.

The path of confrontational politics has not been the one favoured by Eddie Murphy, as an aging superstar or even really as a younger comedic firebrand. Dolemite is My Name is a star vehicle in an old-fashioned Hollywood sense, a conduit for advancing an image of and perspective on a big-name actor whose name was once bigger than it is. In that sense, it works very well, demonstrating that Eddie Murphy is still capable of slash-and-burn comedy flourishes while also developing a vulnerable and introspective side that has crept compellingly into his mature work. With Murphy fully leaning into the age of the nostalgic reboot/sequel by developing Coming to America 2 (with Brewer directing) and Beverly Hills Cop 4 (to be released by Netflix), he is clearly counting on the glow of goodwill that emanates from Dolemite is My Name to last for a while yet. It wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if it did.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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