Review: Dolemite Is My Name – A joyous celebration of Blaxploitation

BLAXPLOITATION is, to put it mildly, a fascinating snapshot of 70s cinema. Providing real opportunities for aspiring black artists, hits like Shaft, Coffy and Black Caesar proved that there was a fierce demand for seeing casts of predominantly black actors in prominent roles, especially in a contemporary Hollywood that relegated talented performers to glorified cameos or sidekick characters, if they were even represented at all. Though derided at the time for glorifying violence and racial stereotypes, the genre was a collective and necessary jab at a complacent, conservative establishment.

Few names in the genre were less conservative than Rudy Ray Moore, a foul-mouthed stand-up comedian who took a wild chance and gave the world Dolemite, in all its poorly made, badly acted, fucking hilarious glory. Dolemite Is My Name, written by American Crime Story scribes Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, is a celebration of outsider art triumphing in the face of technical limitation and fiscal adversity, while also serving as an appropriately flashy time capsule of a turbulent period in American culture.

As you might imagine, the bulk of the narrative concerns the tumultuous production of Moore’s Dolemite, but its primary focus is Moore himself. Played with both gusto and vulnerability by a sublime Eddie Murphy, his clear affection for the subject matter informs a comeback performance that demands attention. Unlike James Franco’s turn as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, a similarly pitched tale of an unlikely filmmaker, Murphy’s portrayal eschews cynical self-awareness, instead embracing the colour and warmth that defined Moore’s public persona. Perhaps more impressive is the fact it’s often easy to forget that this is Eddie Murphy, comic superstar of Beverly Hills Cop and Shrek fame, so engrossed is he in capturing what made Moore so unique.

That warmth extends to the film proper. Effortlessly shot by director Craig Brewer of Hustle and Flow fame, the frame is often bathed in a mahogany polish that evokes the easy comfort of nostalgia. While that can easily be interpreted as criticism, especially in the wake of work like Black KKKlansman, Dolemite Is My Name doesn’t really seek to interrogate the socio-political landscape of 1970s America. Its focus is much narrower, confined to the cinematic trends that exemplified 70s cinema, and as a result it pulls into sharper focus the intricacies and follies in Moore’s demeanour.

This is best exemplified by his insistence on including kung-fu in Dolemite, despite having absolutely zero knowledge of martial arts. In lesser hands, this would be treated with the scorn that it probably deserves, but the film depicts Moore’s incompetence as a charming foible. It’s not too surprising, especially when we consider that Alexander & Karaszewski wrote Ed Wood, a similarly structured examination of a charismatic outsider struggling to exist in a world that ostracises and demeans him, but it also speaks to the incandescent allure that propelled Murphy to international stardom in the first place.

One of the problems with The Disaster Artist was that it seemed to expect the audience to laugh at its subject, despite the best intentions of the crew behind it. No such issue occurs here; like Dolemite itself, the film revels in the camp absurdity of its scenarios, particularly when socially conscious playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) is approached by Moore to help write, essentially, softcore porn. No one embraces the camp quite as much as Wesley Snipes, who plays the measured thespian D’Urville Martin like he’s a cross between Peter O’Toole and Captain Jack Sparrow, all lilting hand gestures and bug-eyed bewilderment at what the fuck he’s signed up for.

The interplay between Snipes, Murphy and Key is a joy to watch, and it’s easy to see how much fun the cast is having with the material. Despite the obvious focus on Murphy, who also co-produced the film, Dolemite Is My Name is surprisingly ensemble in its assemblage. Everyone gets a chance to shine here, like Kodi Smit-McPhee’s embattled film student-cum-DP, and a particularly strong performance from Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, Moore’s muse and partner-in-crime. The film’s emotional heart is clear in the scenes between Randolph and Murphy, reminding the audience that, beneath the bravado and shock-factor of these huge characters, real anxieties persist and, sometimes, overwhelm.

That’s what makes Dolemite Is My Name so appealing: beyond the simple fact that it’s an incredibly funny film about an incredibly funny film, there’s a deeply human core that informs and pervades every minute of its crisp two hours. No wasted motion, no cloying sentimentality, no unnecessary clutter; this is an accomplished piece of work by a passionate team that brings out the best in both its performers and its subject matter. If you have any appreciation for Blaxploitation as a whole – or, more broadly, an appreciation for unconventional cinema in general – you’ve probably already checked this out. If you don’t, this is a wonderful underdog story that takes on the establishment with a smile on its face and a carny’s glint in its eyes.

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