For the uninitiated: Rudy Ray Moore was a comic actor and recording artist whose motor-mouthed movie persona, Dolemite, blazed new trails of dirty, funky laughs in the Blaxploitation era, and earned him the sobriquet “Godfather of Rap.” Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy almost needs his own re-introduction to moviegoers. The star of Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop is better known these days for his voiceover work in kid-flicks à la the Shrek franchise, and the occasional weak action comedy.
Murphy and Rudy Ray Moore, however, are a match made in Chitlin’ Circuit heaven. Case in point: Dolemite Is My Name, Murphy’s hilarious portrayal of Moore’s transformation from an out-of-luck R&B singer into a Black entertainment phenomenon. Nobody is better suited to play Moore than Murphy. The film is a bracing comeback for the former SNL comedian as well as for the late Moore’s legacy. It’s also an opportune excuse to reframe the Blaxploitation discussion.
Rudy Ray is a Los Angeles record store clerk in 1970 when he “borrows” the Dolemite character — a trash-talking, macho hustler thang — from a neighborhood street person, and records a string of hit discs that eventually lead to his eponymous first movie. Dolemite’s shtick combines a little Redd Foxx, a little Skillet & Leroy, a dash of Muhammad Ali, and a major assist from Rudy Ray’s comedian buddy Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), like Moore a “human tor-nay-duh” of salty sex jokes and putdowns.
People who disapprove of the term Blaxploitation may have a small point, but almost all veterans of that subgenre agree that those popular “urban” flicks gave more work to African-American actors than they ever had before in Hollywood. Murphy understands the proposition, and his Moore is every bit as filthy and flavorful as the original, goosed forward with spirited hamming by Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Snoop Dogg, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, and the fabulous Luenell, as Rudy Ray’s aunt. The entire cast looks like they’re having a ball.
All director Craig Brewer — working from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — has to do is keep the camera in focus. In his funniest movie since Boomerang, Murphy is once again at the top of his game. Muthafucka’s on fire.