The original 1975 movie Dolemite will definitely look like an amateur production to modern audiences. The production is cheap, the acting is stilted, and the action is less than convincing. Yet when Rudy Ray Moore gets a chance to recite one of his “toasts,” (famously ribald rhymes as his character Dolemite) it is captivating, and the legacy of the film becomes easier to understand. His character’s persona is so much larger than life that even if his jokes fall flat at times, he is still immensely entertaining.
Dolemite Is My Name follows the true story of Moore (Eddie Murphy) as he rises from a no-name comedian and entertainer to a teller of tall, sexually explicit and profane tales that lead to career success. He probably would have stayed a modest but steady success if he had simply stuck with making his comedy records and touring heavily, as making a movie starring himself was not the best way to get his name out there. Moore is continually told that he is too doughy, too old, and too inexperienced to be a leading man, yet through sheer determination, manages to make his movie. However, this is only half the battle, as he must also find someone to actually show and distribute Dolemite .
Dolemite Is My Name is a conventional movie at its heart, with all the familiar story beats of films such as The Disaster Artist or Badassss!, another look at the troubled creation of a Blaxploitation classic. Yet Dolemite has a real charm due to its sincere heart. As Moore struggles to get together the financing needed for Dolemite, it becomes clear that his efforts are a genuine expression of his need to create. When it becomes clear that no one would ever make a film starring Moore, it is actually a continuation of his self-made career, where he had to create his own opportunities when none were available. Moore also has refreshingly few delusions about his ability to pull off this film, which keeps him grounded. According to this film, it is Moore’s hard work and dedication that inspires the people around him.
In some ways, a movie this sincere would not be a typical Murphy venture. Eddie Murphy’s brand of humor is high-octane, profane and overwhelming. While Murphy has given many excellent performances, there is often a sense of distance between his persona and the audience, as if he only wants to show the audience what he wants them to. Vulnerability and sensitivity are typically not characteristics of his style, but what makes Murphy so appealing in this movie is that his performance makes us believe that Moore is a loser. An early scene with Murphy and Snoop Dogg playing a DJ ends in a conversation about how both men are past their prime, and there is nothing they can do about it. Murphy leans into his vulnerability in this and many other scenes so convincingly that even if we know the result of his efforts, we can almost believe that his Moore is actually going to end up a failure, which only makes his eventual triumph more satisfying.
Director Craig Brewer, of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan fame, runs a tight ship with his direction, with impeccable set design and recreations of the Dolemite movie and an easy, graceful style that gives his actors all that they need to breathe with their performances. Murphy has been known for having an ego and a fiery temperament, yet they are absent here, as other actors get to shine. The standouts are Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, an established actor and the director of Dolemite, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a Broadway star, as Lady Reed, a protege of Moore’s. Snipes is hilarious as an actor with pretensions of grandeur and legitimacy, which one of Moore’s friends cuts down when he mentions how he remembered him as the elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby. Randolph’s character could easily have been relegated to sidekick status with few or no lines, but she gets her own arc. She starts as a wronged, poor housewife and then gets plucked out of obscurity by Moore to start her own career in stand-up comedy, albeit one flirting with stereotypes of Black women and their supposed aggressive sexuality. Yet despite being Moore’s protege, she is also his grounding force, providing him with the reality check that he sometimes needs especially when he gets too wrapped up in small details.
For a movie full of nudity and profanity, Dolemite Is My Name feels surprisingly wholesome. It is the charm of seeing a real underdog triumph by talent and determination that makes this movie’s appeal universal as well as the clearly loving detail that suffuses the entire film. Strangely enough, the movie could have actually benefited from another half hour or more added to its run time since two-thirds of it are spent on the making of Dolemite when the actual selling point is watching Moore’s career progress. Seeing Eddie Murphy turn in such stellar work is always a treat, and it would be very satisfying to see him take on more projects like this that demand more from him as an actor and entertainer.