Some movies dare critics to give them bad reviews, so secure are they in their affinity with the people. They tend to shove would-be detractors into ivory towers, convinced that anyone who isn’t on their side must be an out-of-touch snob. Dolemite Is My Name, the new biopic about comedian and blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore, which opens in limited release this Friday and begins streaming on Netflix on Oct. 25, establishes this worldview early on, as a trio of black friends walk out of Billy Wilder’s The Front Page flummoxed by that film’s existence. “This movie had no titties, no funny, and no kung fu,” groans Moore (Eddie Murphy), “the stuff people like us want to see.” Naturally, Dolemite Is My Name delivers on titties, funnies, and kung fu, all mixed up in a syrupy nostalgia that makes the picture’s feel-good populism go down easy. It’s only when the credits roll that you might notice there was little there but froth.
Dolemite Is My Name is directed by Craig Brewer, who broke through with Hustle & Flow, weathered critical backlash for Black Snake Moan, and recently reunited with Murphy to shoot the Coming to America sequel. But the film at hand might be better understood as the latest love letter to cult favorites and camp icons by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote the screenplays for Ed Wood, the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, and the Margaret Keane legal drama Big Eyes. In Moore, Alexander and Karaszewski have found their latest unlikely folk hero, a winking vulgarian whose irrepressible drive for success more than makes up for his artistic deficiencies. And in Murphy, whose comeback narrative seems to be perpetually written, the filmmakers have an eternal fountain of fizz and zing, as well as another artist whose gaudy tastes are in need of reframing.
Murphy remains ageless at 58 years old, reenacting events from Moore’s early 30s to late 40s without breaking a sweat. (Don’t be surprised if the role lands him an Oscar nomination, despite the fact that the screenplay doesn’t ask him to deliver much dramatic range.) Dolemite Is My Name gleefully—and thankfully—tosses the tropes of the tortured-artist biopic out the window. A wig, a lime-green suit, and a moment of inspiration turn Moore, a comedian-singer-dancer who’s mostly an assistant manager at a Los Angeles record store, into Dolemite, a rhyming pimp with dirty stories for days, which he often sets to tribalistic drumming onstage. It’s not entirely clear why Moore finally succeeds with Dolemite after a lifetime of showbiz striving, but he isn’t one to question—or reflect. He follows his instincts, hurling curse words on tape and plastering naked women on his record covers—two decisions that more or less ensure he’ll have trouble getting on the radio and his albums displayed in stores. He’ll never be a crossover star like Redd Foxx, but that’s OK—black audiences will keep him touring for years.
If you’re not already familiar with Moore’s real-life story, his stratospheric yet shaky rise might make for the film’s most pleasurably tense segments. By the time he and his friends (Craig Robinson and Tituss Burgess, both woefully underused) go see The Front Page, Moore is convinced he needs to make a Dolemite movie—he just has no idea how. After recruiting an earnest, uplift-oriented playwright (Keegan-Michael Key) to pen the script, and D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), a rising actor who would himself become a blaxploitation staple, to direct, Moore gambles everything he’s got and more on making Dolemite a big-screen badass.
Snipes steals nearly all his scenes as the hilariously checked-out D’Urville, who can’t be faulted for believing that his cast of mostly first-time actors and crew of student filmmakers are only capable of catastrophe. (The first thing on the agenda for the cinematographer, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee: steal electricity for the set from a neighboring building.) And yet there’s a lingering discomfort around how eager the film is to laugh at D’Urville’s feyness, as well as that of Burgess’ character. The abundance of female nudity, too, combined with the fact that the film has only one substantial female character—a hardly developed protégé of Moore’s, played with gusto nonetheless by Da’Vine Joy Randolph—adds to the sense that the film is more interested in admiring Moore’s peacocking than humanizing its characters. Accordingly, there’s no deep relationship like the one in Ed Wood between Bela Lugosi and the titular director, or the one in The Disaster Artist between Tommy Wiseau and his friend Greg Sestero. Instead, there are forgettable bit parts and cameos, from the likes of Chris Rock, Mike Epps, and T.I. Among the minor players, only Snoop Dogg—who has claimed to have seen the original Dolemite 300 times—gets to distinguish himself around this sudden superman who goes from making nothing but wrong decisions to becoming seemingly infallible.
It’s probably some kind of progress for Hollywood to feature a black protagonist in one of its many projects that amount to cinematic autofellatio, especially after such Oscar winners as La La Land and The Artist, as well as to revisit blaxploitation outside of reboots, sequels, and Tarantino homages. But Dolemite Is My Name makes it hard not to wonder who the man really was beneath all that flash—a deeply religious one, actually, who took care to distance himself from his comic persona. And it’s equally frustrating to have the film spend so little effort considering the cultural context in which a black striver played up pimphood in the post–civil rights era. (Brewer, Alexander, and Karaszewski’s treatment of race, particularly between black artists and white gatekeepers, alternately paws ineffectually at the surface and proves jarringly anachronistic, like when Randolph’s character thanks her mentor for giving a black, larger woman like herself a chance to see herself on-screen.) But the movie’s most simplistic assertion—one that the movie hinges on—is that in the Venn diagram of “funny” and “smart,” there isn’t much overlap. Dolemite Is My Name makes clear Rudy Ray Moore was both, but by insisting on such a dichotomy, it shows it’s only the former.