We all love a good comeback story, and this year it looks like it's going to be Eddie Murphy's turn. Ahead of a highly publicized return to Saturday Night Live in December, along with the actor's declaration that he'll be returning to stand-up comedy soon, Murphy stars in Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer's biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, the pioneering comedian and filmmaker, this week.
It's easy to appreciate the casting of Murphy as Moore. At the beginning of Dolemite Is My Name, Moore is working at a record store, trying to push the in-house DJ (Snoop Dogg) to play one of his old, out-of-fashion soul 45s, and moonlighting as an emcee at a local music club. In short, he's a man who can't stop performing, even though he hasn't caught a break in years. It's hard not to think of Murphy's real-life career – his last brush with cultural relevancy was as the voice of an animated donkey in the Shrek movies – during these scenes.
Eventually, Moore scores a hit by creating his Dolemite character. Inspired by the proto-rap rhyming games of ex-cons, Dolemite is a living tall tale, the street version of Paul Bunyan, who's always willing to talk about who he's fought and what he's fucked.
After finding plenty of success and fans through live shows and comedy recordings, Moore sets his sights on the big time: a feature film. Moore and his coterie have no experience making movies, but they don't let that stop them. After talking his record company into financing the movie, Moore and friends take over an abandoned old theater and set out to make an independent picture with plenty of "kung-fu and titties," the original Dolemite.
Along with his core trio of friends, Ben (Craig Robinson), Theodore (Tituss Burgess) and Lady Reed (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), Moore recruits a socially conscious playwright, Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to write a screenplay, and D'Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), a small-time actor with big aspirations. You won't find a more talented supporting cast in any comedy this year.
Throughout the production, Moore is plagued by doubts about whether or not going into debt to make the film was a smart move, conscious of his lack of filmmaking knowledge, acting skill and physical sex appeal. But the movie gives lots of people something to be proud of, warts and all. For once, the subjects of blaxploitation pictures – working-class urban black people – are given the opportunity to have a voice in how they want to be portrayed on screen, even if it's not up to the standards of mainstream Hollywood.
Obviously, Dolemite becomes a hit despite several roadblocks during its production and distribution. It's a watershed moment in independent black cinema, but Dolemite Is My Name doesn't play that up, focusing instead on the personal motivations of its cast and crew and the validation that comes from the film's success. Moore didn't live long enough to see a film based on his life come out, but the film leaves the audience with a sense of the vast number of actors, musicians, comedians and artists who were inspired by Dolemite, leaving a lasting legacy for Moore.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 16, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.