One sign that I’m getting older is how often I try to explain the greatest of heroes from yesteryear.
Trying to tell a 20-something about the greatness of Michael Jordan is similar to speaking to them about the brilliance of Eddie Murphy circa the 1980s. Sure, he played Donkey in Shrek and put a few other family-friendly films under his belt during the past couple of decades, but there's nothing like unedited Eddie.
And what better reason could there be for him to drop some more of his beloved F-bombs than playing Rudy Ray Moore in the Netflix film Dolemite Is My Name.
The film was directed by Craig Brewer, the writer/director of Hustle & Flow, and the two movies have a similar feel, following characters who hope to get out of their ruts and make it big. Dolemite starts with Moore trying to convince a disc jockey (Snoop Dogg) in a record store to play one of his songs. After his elevator pitch, More is told, “Sometimes our dreams don't come true.”
After the rejection, we see Moore work as a manager at a record store by day and moonlight as a host for a local club. Rudy's a jack of multiple trades and a master of none, landing closer to a vaudeville act than a true comedian. He gets inspired when a homeless regular stops by the record store and tells his stories as a character named Dolemite that talks slick s#!t in rhyme (think Muhammad Ali's poetry before fights).
Moore decides to find this man and, armed with a bottle of booze and several dollar bills, record all the stories from the guys on the block that speak this code. When Moore tries his subsequent new act out at the club, it's a hit.
It wasn't rocket science, but adding a “motherf#!ker” to any sentence makes it sound funnier (if Eddie hadn’t gotten this role, Samuel L. Jackson would have taken to it like a fish to water).
And here's where the movie feels like it really gets started. By no means is Eddie Murphy doing a Rudy Ray Moore impersonation. Which in hindsight is a good thing. That he sounds and acts like Eddie is the charm of the film. You also see that he's having a blast working with a supporting cast of comedians, including Mike Epps and Craig Robinson, who play Moore’s friends Jimmy and Ben, respectively.
After a record label gets wind of Moore's new comedy routine, he makes, cutting live records and doing comedy clubs. After hanging out with his friends one Christmas night, he suggests they see The Front Page, a comedy by Billy Wilder. Underwhelmed by what they consider a lack of laughs — and a lack of black folks — Moore has an epiphany: Putting the Dolemite character on film could really make it big.
The movie then tackles the making of the first Dolemite movie. Moore finds a local playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to pen the film, grabs a director in D'Urville Martin (an amazing Wesley Snipes), the only person involved with past film experience, and Moore’s muse, Lady Reed (a breakout performance from Da'Vine Joy Randolph).
The moviemaking portion of Dolemite comes off as a love letter to the people (such as myself) that grew up on Moore and his films. We are in on the joke when Moore decides to do Kung Fu scenes that clearly look awful, but nobody could tell him that he wasn't a black Bruce Lee. When a giddy, grinning Murphy asked if it was “better than Shaft,” I burst out laughing.
That's the joy of the movie. It's not an Oscar contender, but so what? It's a great vehicle for Eddie to come back to R-rated entertainment, and an excuse to hang out with all the comedians that he influenced along the way.
Dolemite Is My Name honors the spirit of elder black comedians, a familiar look for Eddie. When he did Harlem Nights, he made it a point to include some of his biggest inspirations — Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Robin Harris, Della Reese.
Likewise, Eddie’s spin through Moore’s story isn't a biopic. It's a love song.