Like many others, the cinematic inspiration for Rudy Ray Moore can be traced back to Billy Wilder. Seated with his friends in a theater on Christmas day, they’re shushed and given sideways glances as they provide a live commentary track for The Front Page (1974). That picture becomes emblematic of the twilight years of a certain kind of on-screen comedy, with Wilder directing the third adaptation of the play, which would have made it increasingly blasé, but a simple holiday entree for the white audience at this screening. The screen has commanded the comedic attention of a culture, but it reflected something that wasn’t for them. The problem with The Front Page is that it had “no titties, no funny, and no kung-fu.” These were the principal concerns of movie-making for the multifaceted performer Rudy Ray Moore. This is the moment where his dream is realized and spurns him on to create a character that reflects the five blocks of his neighborhood because every city in America has its own five blocks just like it.
Back to the great obscenity of his comedy is Eddie Murphy. He has never shown up sharper on-screen than here. He embodies Moore completely, ably handling his fast-rapping style of comedy, oscillating comfortably between sincere multi-talented performance masking a face of sadness, to obliterating the system with rhythmic dissections of the very system that keeps him down. He first emerged as a record store employee who could not command even in-store respect with his outmoded sense for R&B traditions. An incensed man who reeked of piss would come into the store, clearly needing an escort out, and ramble on about the greatest motherfucker anyone had ever heard of and launch into the stories of one, Dolemite. Moore would track this street storyteller down at a homeless camp after one such appearance and pay him with liquor and cash as he elucidated a sensational new rhythm and true to the streets pattern of African American storytelling. He struck gold and would perform this at shows until it spun out into a nice film contract.
Murphy’s delivery is erudite, the greatest dramatic performance he’s ever given. We can sing the praises of Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988) all day. That Murphy of the past, defining of a certain generation and sensibility, is gone with that era. This new dramatically credible Murphy, we’ve never seen to this extent. He is as expert as Moore, confident and then ready at any second to launch into the street gospel of his Dolemite character. It’s an astounding and award-contending turn that will garner the critical attention he has been overdue for the entirety of his career. And he gets to be a whole lot funnier than an outlandish donkey in the computer-animated franchise that defined the second stage of his career. We’re ready, and third stage Murphy is a revelation.
And Moore is an important figure to celebrate. In the pantheon of bad movies, his influence may get short shrift. He arrived at a time of Blaxploitation erupting as a formula. The studios were already playing to the tastes of a different culture than they always had before. The cinema was diversifying, in a very segregated way. To create a wholly and significantly black picture, one made from the streets, that appealed to the streets, was an out of left field outcome. It was usurping the genre exploitation at its own game by making it meaner, funnier, and faster and louder talking than ever before. This critic finds the joy in the delivery – Moore, the film explains, is considered the Godfather of rap – his signature flow inspired many of the bars and rhythms that would come to popularize and define the genre within the next decade.
Dolemite Is My Name largely traces the production of the first Dolemite (1975) movie as directed by D’Uville Martin (Wesley Snipes). Martin had solidified himself in a small part that defined his career in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and within the community with Black Cesar (1973). Just to get the actor involved, they offer him the director’s chair. He regales the cast in his stories of Cassavetes and Polanski, while they fumble with the realities of making a production, starting with the basics of how to light a set. Murphy and Snipes perform beautifully off each other with well-matched wit and timing. We get the support of great part players like Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who contributes the entire heart and pulse of the production, something of Moore’s muse, a clear performative projection of his family and values. We get satisfying parts for Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg, and Craig Robinson, to name a few.
Dolemite Is My Name is a hilarious and charming biopic capturing the making of Moore’s first film. In the pantheon of good movies about bad movies, it places closer to the great Ed Wood (1994) than the memetic The Disaster Artist (2017). When the crew has wrapped and received their first unfriendly reviews, Moore delights in their subtext. People will come in droves to see how someone has made something that has crashed as badly as this. That may bury the truth because the original Dolemite has a cultural currency, for the music, the comedy, and the reality of the streets, that Murphy roundly cashes in. He transcends the character but also fades into him with the assuredness of an actor that has always been this on top of his craft. It marks a great return to form and whether or not it overshadows its subject, Murphy has matured into a great dramatic actor. Moore’s proposed alternative to Billy Wilder has finally been realized.