Dolemite Is My Name

TIFF Journal: Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name

Movie Rating:

4

Dolemite Is My Name is a delightful deep dive into the world of indie film production and the Blaxploitation genre. The movie feels like a spiritual sequel to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (also scripted by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski). Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) helms this bio-pic about a tenacious man, his retinue of friends, and a seemingly implausible story of turning street theater into unexpected pop culture success.

We meet Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) trying unsuccessfully to convince a DJ (Snoop Dog) to play one of his 7″ singles. The debate turns surreal as it’s revealed that the radio station is within a record store where Moore is the assistant manager. Rudy can’t even get his own store to showcase his talents. After encountering the rhymes of a local homeless person, he crafts the character of Dolemite and brings it to the stage, finding surprising success and taking the show on the road.

From there, Moore’s sights get even higher, and he elicits a disparate group of friends to help him bring a mix of comedy, action, and romance to the big screen. Wesley Snipes, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, and Keegan-Michael Key are the main members of the ensemble, along with a breakout performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, a powerful and supremely sympathetic character in the midst of all the male brashness.

The film has numerous other cameos, from Bob Odenkirk to Chris Rock. The project feels like a labor of love by fans of both Murphy and Moore. The movie is never derisive of its subject, nor (like Moore) blind to what he’s trying to do. Unlike the forced irony and delusion of The Disaster Artist, which invited audiences to laugh at its filmmaker subject, it’s clear here that Moore knew exactly what he didn’t know, yet still had the infectious confidence to put everything on the line and have a go.

This spirit of steadfastness gives the film its warmest glow, buttressed by Murphy’s exceptional portrayal. It would be easy for this to fall into farce, but the tone is deftly maintained, feeling completely organic to both the spirit of the original film and the story of the man who made it. Murphy’s not doing a shtick; his affecting performance brings out the sparkle in the eyes of Moore, a man who was not blind to his own circumstance but was still willing to see brighter possibilities when anyone with the least bit of cynicism would quickly fold.

The pacing doesn’t quite work in a few moments, and there’s only so much you can do to protract the success that’s to come. While Ed Wood was a fascinating failure, which allowed for a greater degree of sympathy and pathos, much of the thrill of Moore’s journey is that somehow he came out on top. He’s offensive, bold, and brash, characteristics often softened for reasons both noble and puritanical; his exploits speak to both a freedom and ignorance that’s of a different age. However, there’s still much to learn from Moore’s journey, much to admire about his work, and to be amused by certain core aspects of the African American traditions that go back millennia, comedy drawn from suffering and larger-than-life characters set to be both mocked and admired.

This take on Rudy Ray Moore is a gift, the fulfillment of the stated desire that Moore be remembered for future generations. While Shaft gets remade as neutered nonsense, this is the real deal.

Eddie Murphy’s back on the scene, an exceptional film far from mean, so hold onto your seats, hold onto them tight, and make sure you drink a tall glass of Dolemite.

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