Eddie Murphy shines in this loving tribute by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to blaxploitation and low-budget filmmakers.
Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have a corner on the market of the unloved impresario, whether that’s trash director Edward D. Wood, Jr. in 1994’s Ed Wood or porn producer Larry Flynt in 1997’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. It’s no surprise their loving reverence for their subjects is mimicked by equally noteworthy performances, many that have gone on to win Academy Awards.
And their latest story may tread the exact same subject matter, but its familiarity goes down as warm as chicken soup. Dolemite Is My Name is a living tribute to a man who just wanted to make movies and who, in the process, helped a marginalized community see themselves in some way.
Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) is a failed singer turned emcee at local nightclubs. He knows he’s destined for better things and sets out to make a movie. But it turns out making a low-budget movie is harder than it seems, leaving Moore’s magnum opus, Dolemite, struggling to find its footing.
Biopics about performers of color are rare, particularly in mainstream features — maybe because the history of being a black performer in Hollywood is so fraught with systemic racism that screenwriters don’t want to deal with. So that immediately sets Dolemite Is My Name apart.
Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore is a loud personality from the minute he’s introduced, attempting to sell his numerous singles to a local DJ played by Snoop Dog. Murphy, at his gregarious best, is the embodiment of dynamite. And even when things are looking down for Moore, Murphy refuses to diminish the twinkle in his eye.
Because this is an Alexander and Karaszewski venture, the narrative plays out as expected. Moore is down on his luck, crafts an idea, and struggles to bring that idea to fruition. It takes over an hour for the actual film production to start, but it gives the script time to show the rise of the adult comedy album. Moore, inspired by a group of homeless men he dubs the “liquor store wisemen,” decides to use their rhyming pattern of storytelling to create humor. This mix of rhyme and music would come to define Moore as one of the fathers of rap music.
Director Craig Brewer, helmer of Hustle and Flow, beautifully captures the smokey world of African American nightclubs in the ’70s. There’s an insular quality to them that follows the characters outside to their own homes. Moore becomes a huge success recording his rhymes and selling them out of his store, leading to the rise of X-rated record albums and the independent selling of music.
Along the way he collects a cast of characters including the maligned Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), director D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), and screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key). When he finally decides to transition into filmmaking, the film becomes a stereotypical “let’s-make-a-movie” feature that it needs that hour of setup to really show the struggles of being a minority in entertainment at that time.
Dolemite’s production is where the supporting cast gets to shine, playing off of Murphy as they work together to make this bizarre production work. Snipes is masterly as actor-turned-director Martin. Every gesture in Snipes’ repertoire is meant to convey that he’s too good for the production and has absolutely no idea what the movie is about. For Martin, this is a passion project that’s doomed to failure and he’s just waiting for the next best thing.
Randolph is fantastic as Lady Reed, the production’s lone leading lady who, by the end, is happy to finally see herself lead the way as far as representation of black women onscreen. Key, Craig Robinson, and Mike Epps are also dependable, though they’re more cherries on top of the frosting that’s the other performers.
By the time it all comes together, the audience has bonded to Moore’s struggle. Much like the Tommy Wiseau feature The Disaster Artist, Dolemite Is My Name has a reverence for Moore’s desire to have his movie seen and appreciated. In the end, it goes better than he could have ever thought possible.
Dolemite Is My Name is a loving tribute to Rudy Ray Moore and the blaxpolitation era. Murphy deserves an Oscar, plain and simple. If you’ve enjoyed other Alexander and Karaszewski features in the past, this is right up your alley.