Premise: Eddie Murphy portrays real-life legend Rudy Ray Moore, a comedy and rap pioneer who proved naysayers wrong when his hilarious, obscene, kung-fu fighting alter ego, Dolemite, became a 1970s Blaxploitation phenomenon.
When we’re first introduced to Rudy Ray Moore, the central figure of Dolemite is My Name, he’s busy pitching his albums to the DJ (Snoop Dogg, of course) to play them on the radio station located in the back of the record store where he works. Since moving to California, he’s worn a lot of different hats: magician, musician, and stand-up comedian just to name a few, all to little-to-no success. But Moore is nothing if not persistent, with a little creativity to boot. He soon encounters a hobo and his friends, who tell him about “the baddest motherfucker who ever lived”, Dolemite, and Moore never looks back. He soon adopts the foul-mouthed, rhyming stage persona for his next gig, dressed to the nines (“you look like a pimp!”, one of his friends remarks). The routine is such a hit that he begins making several comedy albums – one even cracking the Billboard charts – and begins touring the country. Played by Eddie Murphy (plenty more on him in a second), Moore is full of not only confidence but charisma; he truly believes it’s his destiny to be a star, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get there.
About midway through the film, Moore goes to see a Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau movie that just doesn’t resonate with him or his friends. And so, Rudy gets it in his head that the best way to get Dolemite to the masses is to make a movie himself. There’s a great moment where Murphy looks back at the projector, seeing not only the effect that movies have on people, but what he believes is the simplicity of making a movie. If Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau can do it, why can’t he? It’s in this second half of the film that Dolemite is My Name really shines. The supporting cast, already rounded out by Craig Robinson, Titus Burgess, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Mike Epps, but it gets strengthened even more with the additions of Keegan-Michael Key as the film’s screenwriter and Wesley Snipes as its director and on-screen villain. Snipes in particular steals almost every scene he appears in. A bit-playing actor (he gets recognized as the elevator operator in Rosemary’s Baby), Moore cons him into coming on board by offering him the directing gig, and his exasperations once he realizes what he’s gotten himself into at all stages of production are never not funny.
A film about Rudy Ray Moore could have covered a much wider swath of his life – from the little bit that he reveals about his early life in Arkansas, there could have been some interesting material explored there. But director Craig Brewer sticks to the birth of the Dolemite persona, and the result is a more focused and cohesive film. The lengths to which Moore goes to make his big screen dreams happen show a man who knows he’s in over his head, but will never say so out loud. No acting experience? How hard can it be?! Don’t know kung fu? Make it up on the spot! Don’t have any cameras or equipment? Hire film school students! In another life, Rudy Ray Moore was probably a salesman, and he was damn good at it, too. Not only does he sign away the rights to his comedy albums to get funding, but he buys out an abandoned hotel to shoot in since he’s been rejected by every major (and minor) studio in town, which he sleeps in after filming every night because he can no longer afford the rent in his apartment. It’s to Brewer’s credit that each of Rudy’s decisions, no matter how ridiculous they may sound, come off as genuine and believable. It would be easy to make his desperation ring hollow – or worse, make him an unlikeable figure – but Murphy’s charisma makes him somebody worth rooting for.
His chemistry with Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s Lady Reed is one of the better aspects of the film because of their similar aspirations, not to mention their similarly vulgar senses of humor. In real life, all of Lady Reed’s screen credits were shared with Moore, and her comedy albums almost always featured Moore. Sadly though, their scenes are too few and far between. Rudy is such an outsized presence, and Lady Reed offers a nice way to keep him grounded and remind him of what is at stake. Their platonic kinship provides a solid emotional core to the film, especially in a scene near the end of the film.
Eddie Murphy has dipped his toes into dramatic territory before, most notably in 2006’s Dreamgirls, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Here, he is unquestionably worth the price of admission (no, you don’t have to remind me that you can now watch the film for free on Netflix). Murphy may not have been going for an outright impression of Rudy Moore, but what he lacks there, he makes up for by capturing his magnetic personality. The shot of the projector is mirrored later in the film when Moore’s own movie Dolemite is playing (in Indianapolis, no less) and Murphy wordlessly conveys an appreciation of how lucky he is to have made it to this point. There’s an early scene where Moore has just adopted the Dolemite persona, and he is rehearsing his set in front of a mirror. Murphy manages to show the gears turning as he loses himself into his stage character and it’s fascinating to watch. Eddie Murphy uses his infectious grin to his advantage here, like in the best of his roles, and it’s easy to see how Rudy Ray Moore could convince so many people to bring Dolemite – an intentionally vulgar, abrasive character – into the mainstream. Can Murphy break through and have success come Oscar season in 2020? The answer remains to be seen, but if he’s anything like Rudy Ray Moore, good luck telling him no.