Just because a movie isn’t a masterpiece doesn’t mean there isn’t a great story behind it. Dolemite Is My Name has echoes of Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist. All three of these movies center on men who clearly aren’t making the next Citizen Kane, but the passion they bring to their art can’t be denied. Unlike Ed Wood and Tommy Wiseau, though, the mind behind Dolemite is fully aware that he’s making a trashy, lowbrow flick. When Jackass Number Two came out, the filmmakers proudly displayed all the negative reviews their first movie got in the trailer. Likewise, our protagonist in this film not only takes criticism in stride, but wears it as a badge of honor.
When Eddie Murphy received an Oscar nomination for Dreamgirls well over a decade ago, we were all ready for a major career resurgence. Of course, Murphy quickly dashed all the goodwill he built up with Norbit, which won him three Razzies and arguably cost him the Academy Award. Ironically, one of the reasons Murphy agreed to do Dreamgirls was get Norbit off the ground. Murphy ushers in yet another comeback with his turn as Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling standup comedian/musician. Rudy strikes comedic gold when an old timer played Ron Cephas Jones inspires him to create Dolemite, a Kung Fu fighting pump. His standup routine as Dolemite paves the way for a successful comedy record, which gives Moore the idea to make a feature film about the character.
As far as Blaxploitation movies go, Dolemite never quite reached the same level of name recognition as something like Shaft. After all, you don’t’ see Warner Bros. trying to reboot Dolemite with Samuel L. Jackson and Jessie T. Usher. Where the earlier Shaft movies were intended to be action crime thrillers, Moore took a slightly different approach. While Moore’s film was still a celebration of the African American experience, he also recognized that Blaxploitation could be borderline hilarious, even if that wasn’t the director’s intention. With Dolemite, Moore embraces the lunacy and pushes for scenes to have a more comedic edge. In that sense, you could argue that Dolemite was the stepping stone between Shaft and straight-up satires like Black Dynamite.
Although Moore doesn’t set the bar especially high, even the cheapest movies don’t come cheap. Moore puts every cent he has into financing this labor of love and even then, his crew needs to steal electricity. Through his charm and charisma, Moore is able to attract a playwright named Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) and an established Blaxploitation director named D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes). Like Murphy, Snipes is another actor whose career has been on shaky ground as of late, albeit for different reasons. He delivers a winning supporting performance as a filmmaker who’s constantly asking himself, “What the hell did I get myself into?” Little does Martin realize that he’s shooting what might be the most memorable project in his filmography.
As wonderful as the whole cast is, there wouldn’t be a movie without Murphy. In addition to being one of Murphy’s most mature performances, this is perhaps the most invested he’s been in a live-action comedy role since the 80s. It’s evident that Murphy truly admired Moore and wanted to do him justice on the big screen. Murphy portrays Moore as an ambitious creative thinker who’s outrageous when the cameras are rolling and humble behind the scenes. The sharp screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote Ed Wood, is tailor-made for Murphy’s quick-witted talents. It never feels like Murphy is reading from the script, though, channeling Moore and Dolemite with ease. With Hustle & Flow, director Craig Brewer showed us that it’s hard out here for a pimp. With Dolemite Is My Name, he finds the humor in being a pimp.