Dolemite Is My Name: Infectiously fun
Old story, new telling7
Black representation to the fore8
Anton Bitel | On 19, Oct 2019
Director: Craig Brewer
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg
Watch Dolemite Is My Name online in the UK: 25th October
When we first meet Randy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, he is stuck in the past. He has a bunch of LPs that even the DJ (Snoop Dogg) in the record store where he works refuses to play on the grounds that the old-fashioned songs on them sound like something to which only his ‘grandaddy’ would listen. And when his other job, as warm-up comedian in a music club, fails to win him the fame he so craves, Randy decides to reinvent his act by appropriating and incorporating the rhymed toast that he hears from an old homeless man, and by assuming the persona of the legendary pimp Dolemite.
Yet as this latest film from Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, 2005; Black Snake Moan, 2006) proves, sometimes there is no school like the old school. After all, Dolemite Is My Name is a lavish evocation of the African-American community in 1970s Los Angeles, and it practically resurrects the career of Eddie Murphy (as Randy), whose heyday was back in the 1980s and 90s – and who has very much regained his mojo here.
The nostalgia (as well as the foul-mouthed yet strangely innocent brand of irreverence) that Randy brings to his new stand-up routine (and to the self-produced, best-selling comedy records that follow) are also precisely the qualities that make Brewer’s film so irresistibly appealing – while the distancing effect of handling materials and characters that are decidedly passé brings a welcome layer of irony. Working hard with his friends to produce and sell his first independent comedy record, spotting on tour the talent of straight-talking single mother Lady Reed (De’Vine Joy Randolph), and always showing a keen sense of what his specific audience wants, Randy is a blend of charisma, populism and egalitarianism, as well as a black folk hero who readily fills a space in the market that the mainstream (white) entertainment industry has ignored. The success of his comedy career sparks Randy’s ambitions further, and soon he is working to write, produce and star in an independent movie about the pimp persona he has invented.
At this point, Dolemite Is My Name seems to morph into something like The Disaster Artist (2017), James Franco’s reconstructive account of wannabe filmmaker Tommy Wiseau and his inept feature debut The Room (2003). Like Wiseau’s debut, Randy’s (very real) Dolemite (1975) is dazzlingly ramshackle and technically incompetent, yet despite terrible reviews, finds its audience and cleans up at the box office. Unlike The Room, though, Dolemite was made by a comedian, and there is the sense here that Randy, for all his worries and stresses about losing everything for which he has hustled so hard, is always in on the joke. Most of the on-set laughs here are at the expense of Dolemite’s director and co-star D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), whose pretentious pomposity is a comic mismatch for Randy’s entirely unpretentious instincts. There is also fun to be had with the low-level exasperation of serious playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Kay) as he finds himself, like a black Barton Fink, having to add car chases, ‘titties’ and kung fu to a screenplay that he hopes will offer a social-realist perspective on African-American experience.
There is something fundamentally attractive about the ‘rags-to-riches’ type of narrative, in which a true underdog puts on a show and, against all odds, comes good in the end. Yet what distinguishes Dolemite Is My Name is its shift in representation towards an ensemble of mostly black characters. Dolemite belonged to a body of films from the 1970s known collectively as ‘Blaxploitation’ – but while Brewer certainly does give some attention to the way that white financiers and distributors were ready to make a buck off black talent, his primary focus is on a self-made, self-promoting African American who understands exactly what his own community wants and duly delivers it, while insisting on fairly paying all who work for/with him. Randy may play the priapic pimp, but he is generous to a fault, a keen (if unconventional) businessman, and someone who walks among (rather than talks down to) his own audience. It’s a great comedy, but also a very positive portrayal of brothers (and one sister) doing it for themselves at a time when Hollywood was looking elsewhere.
Dolemite Is My Name is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.