Note: This film is now in limited theatrical release before debuting on Netflix on Friday, October 25th.
Eddie Murphy, who had name-above-title billing in a hit movie at 21, was one of the biggest stars in the world at 25, and whose imminent "comeback" has been a three-decade topic that a steady role in the animated Shrek franchise and an Oscar nomination (for Dreamgirls) couldn't silence, is an odd choice to play Rudy Ray Moore.
Moore chased success as a singer, dancer, and stand-up before finding it in his mid-forties (in the early '70s) in the persona of Dolemite, his pimp-styled character who delivered artfully filthy rhymes over a backbeat. In the decorous language of his 2008 New York Times obituary, Moore's "standup comedy, records and movies related earthy rhyming tales of a vivid gaggle of characters as they lurched from sexual escapade to sexual escapade in a boisterous tradition, born in Africa, that helped shape today's hip-hop."
Certainly the blue-chip cast that has shown up to support Murphy in the buoyant-but-superficial Netflix biopic Dolemite Is My Name is its own tribute to Moore's intersectional significance: Snoop Dogg and Chris Rock appear in two-scene roles, with Keegan-Michael Key, Titus Burgess, Craig Robinson, and Mike Epps in beefier parts as Moore's various collaborators. Wesley Snipes' effeminate characterization of D'urville Martin, who directed and played the villain in the 1975 blaxploitation classic Dolemite — the film that solidified Moore's cult... stardom? — may strike some viewers as homophobic, but it's the first real performance that Snipes, who a generation ago appeared to be an actor whose versatility and magnetisim were without limit, has given in too many years.
None of these men have been cast for their resemblance to the people they're playing. But Murphy, despite how much he seems to love filling out Dolemite's flamboyant suits, doesn't even try to look or sound like Moore. (His Bill Cosby impression in his 1988 concert film Raw is a much closer act of mimicry than anything he does here.) He just throws himself headlong into this incurious depiction of Moore as an entertainer who didn't much care whether his audience was laughing with him or at him, so long as they were laughing.
Neither the performance nor the movie surrounding it attempts the sort of sober psychological investigation that Will Smith brought to his performance as Muhammad Ali, for example. Murphy and director Craig Brewer (who are working together again on a Coming to America sequel due next year) have opted for a feel-good approach, letting Scott Bomar's pastiche-funk score and the warm camaraderie among the cast — and those wonderful suits — propel their tale of underdog triumph. What emotional depth it has comes mostly from Da'Vine Joy Randolph's commanding turn as Lady Reed, whom Moore recruits to be his onstage comic foil after watching her deck her philandering husband at a nightclub where he's performing. A scene where she thanks him for talking her into trying showbiz because she's never seen anyone who looks like her on screen before feels anachronistic, but it's moving all the same.
After a while, it becomes apparent that this is less a character study than an Origins of a Turkey movie in the tradition of the recent The Disaster Artist or 1994's Ed Wood. Its screenplay, come to that, is by the Ed Wood duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who that same decade gave us The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon (with A-lister Jim Carrey as cult comic Andy Kaufman). So clearly these writers are interested in figures whose work challenges notions of taste and propriety. But Dolemite Is My Name, for all its potent entertainment value, never musters the same curiosity about its subject that those '90s movies did.
Instead, Dolemite Is My Name compresses the events of five years or so into a breezy calendar-flipping arc, starting with Moore's triumph as a DIY peddler of dirty comedy records and climaxing with his success as a DIY film producer and star. The eureka moment wherein he decides he belongs in the pictures comes when he and his pals go — on the recommendation of a glowing newspaper review! — to see Billy Wilder's 1974 version of The Front Page. While the movie's overwhelmingly white audience howls, Moore and his friends are stone-faced. Moore's verdict is harsh but two-thirds indisputable: "That movie had no funny, no titties, and no Kung Fu!"
Had Wilder had the benefit of such insight, Double Indemnity and Some Like It Hot might have been very different films. But Murphy-as-Moore's other note—that The Front Page had no performers of color—sticks, even if the notion that "people like us" (in Moore's words) can't appreciate the sort of mordant comedy Wilder was into is potentially problematic. Brewer, who directed Hustle and Flow and Black Snake Moan, is undeterred by "potentially problematic," as is Murphy.
Obviously a long-unsated appetite among black audiences to see themselves represented in mass entertainment was key to the success of the blaxploitation genre, but that alone cannot account for the specific popularity of Dolemite, a hilariously low-rent production that made earlier penny-pinching blaxploitation hits like Coffy or Black Caesar look lavish by comparison. It's full of catatonic line readings, boom mics dipping into frame, and halfhearted karate kicks from a winded star who doesn't look fit enough to take on a flight of stairs. When my friends and I watched Dolemite repeatedly in high school in the 90s, we would argue whether its irresistible awfulness was intentional or not.
For what it's worth, Dolemite Is My Name splits the difference, suggesting that Dolemite's room-destroying sex scene was designed to be funny, but that the hilarity of its fights stemmed from genuine incompetence. In that spirit, we witness the filming of the infamous throw-down that ensues when three white FBI agents confront Dolemite in his driveway and try to take him into custody. Is it a deliberate in-joke that Martin — the director who watches his hopeless performers fumble their way through their fight choreography and concludes that a second take would be futile — is played by Snipes, the one genuine martial artist in the movie? A guy whose overindulgence in action flicks arguably ruined his career as a serious actor? Probably. In any case, it's a fun thing to argue about with your friends.