Dolemite & Me

Charlotte Film Society brought Eddie Murphy-starring tribute to blaxploitation ‘classic’ to the big MFing screen
Eddie Murphy (front) leads an all-star cast in ”Dolemite Is My Name,” a Netflix film that the Charlotte Film Society screened this week.

I learned about Dolemite, the character, and Dolemite, the movie, from another movie, The Great White Hype, a 1996 comedy with Samuel L. Jackson, Jeff Goldblum, and Damon Wayans. Wayans plays a heavyweight boxing champion, James “The Grim Reaper” Roper, bamboozled into a fight against a former amateur boxer on the premise that more people will pay to see a match between a black fighter and a white fighter than, as Jackson’s character puts it, “(black people) beatin’ up on (black people).”

Roper is insulted enough to refuse to train (though not enough to refuse to fight; he wants the money). He gets fat on pints of ice cream. In the dressing room before the fight, he lies on his stomach, gloves on, and smokes as he watches something on television. “You wanna cut that junk off and get rid of that cigarette?” says his trainer. “You gotta fight out there!”

“Man, this is Dolemite,” Roper replies. “It’s my inspiration tape, OK?”

The Great White Hype is not a great movie, but this is an especially funny joke. What Wayans’ character sees on the screen is an overweight man in his late 40s (Dolemite, played by Rudy Ray Moore, who produced and co-wrote Dolemite) trying to execute a fight scene and failing, utterly and hilariously. In the scene, crooked cops are framing Dolemite for drug possession. “You’re gonna have to take me,” Dolemite declaims in a typically ham-handed line reading. He throws one officer to the side as if slinging a sack of flour. He “karate-kicks” a second cop to the ground and “knees” a third into a car trunk. Any viewer can see that neither foot nor knee comes within radar range of its target. Dolemite is notorious for some of the most ludicrous and poorly executed fight scenes in the history of film, and the idea of an out-of-shape boxer using it as his “inspiration tape”—well, that’s just comic genius.

I didn’t fully realize that at the time. I do remember thinking: “This Dolemite movie isn’t real, is it?” Yes, it is. Soon after, I procured a VHS copy from my friendly neighborhood Blockbuster—this was 1996, remember—and watched it, agape. It really is a small miracle: a film of such spectacular technical incompetence, atrocious acting, abysmal writing, and seemingly drug-induced direction that its existence, much less its theatrical release, is hard to believe. It’s one of a handful of horrendous-but-wonderful movies that would be unwatchable if they were marginally “better.” Their dreadfulness is the key to their appeal. (You may be thinking of The Room, but that movie at least looks OK; whoever filmed it managed to keep the camera steady and the boom mic out of frame.)

I loved it. This began a possibly unhealthy preoccupation with Dolemite in particular and the “I can’t believe they got away with that” ethos of the early-to-mid-1970s in general. I was a child then. I’m sorry I missed it. It looks like a hell of a good time, even when its denizens were falling on their faces. Dolemite is an uncut product of the mid-’70s, in its attire, its attitude, its dialogue (“I can dig it!”), and its good fortune to land in the hands of someone, somewhere, stoned enough to greenlight it.

Just in time, too. Blaxploitation films were on their way out by 1975, the year of Dolemite’s release, but this wasn’t the typical “fly, savvy brother versus The Man” blaxploitation fare. It’s a kind of farce, or self-parody, although you’re left wondering afterward whether that’s intentional. Then you think about the fight scenes, the clumsy lines clumsily delivered, the conspicuous shadows of the film crew on the ground during a late-afternoon scene, and conclude: Nah. These people just didn’t know what they were doing.

By now, even people who have never seen Dolemite have viewed or heard about Dolemite Is My Name, the Netflix original film, released last week, about Moore and his efforts to build a comedy career from raunchy “party records” and Dolemite, based on a character he honed through live shows on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Moore, who made two Dolemite sequels along with their cinematic cousins Petey Wheatstraw and Disco Godfather, and other low-budget gems, died in 2008 at 81. If you’re looking for a distillation of the entertainment style and content of Rudy Ray Moore, this trailer for The Human Tornado, the first Dolemite sequel, serves as an ideal primer. It has everything: hideous attempts at kung fu; a car chase; a car blowing up; boobs; and an elderly woman on a toilet who purse-beats a man trying to pee into the sink next to her.

The cast of the Netflix film is enough to make your jaw drop for a different reason: Wesley Snipes, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Bob Odenkirk (uncredited!), and of course Eddie Murphy in the title role. At 58, Murphy clearly savors the chance to bite into a role so rich and filthy: Connoisseurs of the Oedipal epithet will love Dolemite Is My Name. I lost count of the number of times it’s used as appellation, descriptor, honorific, all-purpose noun.

It’s made for TV, laptop or smartphone, but the Charlotte Film Society arranged with Netflix to show it on the big screen Monday night at Ayrsley Grand Cinemas in south Charlotte. The Film Society has been working with Netflix to bring some of its original films to Charlotte theaters: Roma, which won three Academy Awards, ran for one night in February in conjunction with the Oscars; the society showed The Laundromat, with Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, and Antonio Banderas, last week; and the group has arranged for a three-night screening of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman in December. Theaters balk at contracts to show films not meant for them, but Ayrsley was willing to rent to the Film Society, says the group’s president, Brad Ritter.

That’s quite an irony, too, considering that Dolemite Is My Name is mainly the story of a man desperately trying to get his cobbled-together movie shown in theaters, or anywhere, out of an insatiable need for self-validation. “All my life, people been telling me no,” Murphy-as-Moore says. At its root, Dolemite Is My Name is a straightforward story of perseverance against the odds, and it isn’t even the first movie along those lines about the making of a blaxploitation film; it owes quite a bit to Baadasssss!, Mario Van Peebles’ 2003 homage to his father’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, released in 1971 and generally considered the first of the subgenre.

Still, anyone who’s kept hammering away at a lifetime of “no” can appreciate Moore’s unshakable, possibly delusional, self-assurance. “I got something to offer!” he tells a club owner who denies him and his dismal comedy act a spot on the marquee early in the film. Turning away, he mutters under his breath, in early but unmistakable Dolemitese: “Rat soup-eatin’ motherf*cker.”

In real life, Moore spun his awful, raunchy, gut-busting records and movies into enough fame to win a kind of underground immortality. MADtv paid tribute circa 2000 with a series of “Son of Dolemite” sketches that fondly mimic the movies’ comic ineptitude. Moore’s “street raps” weren’t triumphs of substance or flow, but they were early and influential enough to earn him the nickname “The Godfather of Rap.” Pioneers needn’t bother with polish.

Dolemite Is My Name captures that rough edge. In the film and in life, Moore succeeds, even with a terrible picture. Moore realizes that’s hardly the point. With his crew in the back of a limousine on the way to the premiere of Dolemite, Moore waves aside negative newspaper reviews, saying he understands what the people want: “explosions, car crashes, and titties.” The limo rolls up to The Orpheum Theatre in L.A. and a huge, rapturous crowd. What can you say? He’s bad. The man is out of sight. I can dig it.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, The Buzz