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Fantastic Fest: ‘Dolemite is My Name’ (review)

Produced by Eddie Murphy, John Davis, John Fox
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
Directed by Craig Brewer
Starring Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key,
Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Titus Burgess,
Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes,
Aleksandar Filimonović , Tip “T.I.” Harris,
Chris Rock, Ron Cephas Jones, Luenell

 

Hollywood is often criticized and lampooned as an insider’s town, a self-sustained “old-boy’s club,” where the power is contained in the hands of a few old white men who cling to it decade after decade. It stands to reason then that as the nation becomes more diverse and more voices are given a chance that Tinseltown should reflect that shift.

Only in 2019 do we finally have a biopic about Hollywood that focuses on a true underdog, an outsider who went to any length to get his film made: the one and only Rudy Ray Moore.

Courtesy of Netflix and Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name is a crowd-pleasing film of one man’s rise to stardom through blood, sweat, and lot of tears from laughter.

Starting from Moore’s (Murphy) roots as day-dreaming record store clerk, the film begins with his initial success in recorded comedy under the alias of Dolemite. As his stardom explodes, Moore realizes the next step is the silver screen, and with the help of his various plucky friends, he sets out to make the Dolemite movie.

While the film is undoubtedly Moore’s story, the film is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast including Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Keegan-Michael Key. However, the real show stealer is a near unrecognizable Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, oscillating between drug induced outbursts and resigned indifference with ease as the jaded actor who wants to be something more than a blaxploitation regular and, as the film puts it, “the elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby”. It’s through this great group that the film postulates Dolemite (the film) is almost a community dream, an entire group of marginalized people working to get themselves a seat at the table of Hollywood through any means of necessary. It’s poignant and speaks to how at the end of the day, all anybody really wants is to be heard.

Eddie Murphy has often been criticized for taking increasingly questionable roles and delivering even more questionable performances since his 1980s heyday, but his turn as Moore here is a great reminder of what a great comedic actor he can be when he’s passionate about the material. It’s clear Murphy has a strong reverence for Moore and what he means to the black community. Murphy’s rendition of Dolemite (as the character within the film they’re making) is a lot more exaggerated than Moore played it, but rather than cheap parody, it comes across as Murphy capturing Moore’s enthusiasm and unyielding commitment for what he’s making, something that quickly infects us as the viewer.

The film is written by Ed Wood, Man on The Moon, and The People Vs. Larry Flint screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, which quickly becomes apparent in the structure of the film. Their screenplays are more concerned with celebrating men who are overtly passionate, often bordering on delusional.

Alexander and Karazewski are clearly enamored with these larger than life figures, but with Moore, they’re more interested in what he represents outside of films and cinephile circles, as an inspiration for an entire segment of the American population. Conversely, however, this also prevents the film from attaining anything deeper beyond blind, albeit fun hero worship.

Whereas there’s an underlying sense of tragedy and pitying naiveté to Ed Wood’s jubilation at the end of Ed Wood and Andy Kaufman’s fragile mortality in Man on The Moon;  in Dolemite Is My Name, despite his reputation and career never taking off like he wanted, Moore never truly encounters real obstacles. Any time he come across the slightest inconvenience, it’s quickly resolved within the next scene or two without much in the way of character growth. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but it keeps the film from attaining something deeper and giving it subsequent re-watch value, for me at least.

I’m admittedly a sucker for films like this as it’s always fun to stroll down Hollywood memory lane and play “Hey, I recognize that movie!” or “I get that reference!”. Particular highlights include Moore’s trip to American International Pictures (AIP) and seeing posters for the likes of Black Mama, White Mama and Black Caesar adorning the wall. While the film’s director is admittedly a bit bland and never really parallels the grit of low budget filmmaking from this period, it’s at least nice enough to give us some great music cues (Marvin Gaye’s “Lets Get It On” is always a welcome choice) and period appropriate set design that it evokes a fascinating bygone era of Hollywood history.

While I question whether Dolemite Is My Name is the Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle many are hyping it up to be, there’s no denying it’s a fun time and great reminder of what art has the power to do.

Blaxploitation is frequently derided these days as being regressive and promoting negative stereotypes of the black community, but there’s no denying how pivotal it was in bring people of all colors in front of the camera in Hollywood. In that sense, it’s probably a truer celebration of the genre than something like Black Dynamite could ever dream to be.

 

 

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