A little over 10 years ago, Eddie Murphy was riding high on the success of his Oscar-nominated turn as Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls. After being robbed of the top prize at the 2007 Oscars, followed by a series of (non-Shrek) misfires, like 2008’s Meet Dave and Mr. Church in 2016, Murphy fans have been patiently awaiting a comeback. His Netflix passion project on Blaxploitation icon and hip-hop forefather Rudy Rae Moore, Dolemite Is My Name, is exactly the movie we’ve been waiting for.
Earlier reports of the film mistakenly assumed that Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name was a remake of the original 1975 Blaxploitation film Dolemite. (With the original’s rampant sexism and violence against women, a remake certainly wouldn’t have gone over well in 2019.) Fortunately, Murphy’s film is an empowering underdog story, about how a financially struggling Moore developed the Dolemite character and was able to utilize this persona to take him to an unprecedented level of success in Hollywood.
Set the stage to 1970s Los Angeles: Moore (Murphy) is a singer, actor and stand-up comedian struggling to get his songs played on the radio. Working at a record shop by day, he moonlights as the MC at a club at night, where his jokes are received with crickets. Then, one day while working at the store, he has a revelation. After hearing street jokes from a toothless, homeless man with a drinking problem (the always brilliant Ron Cephas Jones) about a street pimp named Dolemite, Moore decides to take on the character and make it a part of his act. Though he’s recording the urban myths that Jones’s character shares in exchange for a few dollars and some liquor, Moore kicks up the punchlines and expands the character into a cane-toting, raunchy, kung fu master player: “Dolemite is my name…and f—n’ up motherf—-s is my game!”
He decides to test out the character one night at the club and suddenly becomes a local hit. He brings his crew, money man Theodore Toney (Tituss Burgess), singer-songwriter Ben Taylor (Craig Robinson) and fellow producer Jimmy Lynch (Mike Epps) along for the ride as Dolemite is suddenly in high demand. He wants to begin turning the comedy acts into albums, but no one wants to distribute the album because of its vulgar content. After bootleg albums start to blow up, it’s hard for the record companies to ignore the potential hit they may have on their hands. As he begins finding success by performing in clubs across the country, he also discovers a protégé in a newly-single mother with a mean right hook, Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
After finding success with his comedy shows and albums, Moore doesn’t want to stop just there, he wants it all. And his next planned stop? The box office! He hits up studio after studio but no one wants to touch a Dolemite-themed film. How could they market such explicit content? He decides to finance the movie himself and lures actor D’Urville Martin (a hilarious Wesley Snipes) onto the project by giving him the role of director. He also convinces a popular playwright, Jerry Jones (Keegan Michael-Key), to come on board as screenwriter. Despite the fact that Jones is used to penning Black entertainment that also informs (his latest community play focused on a young brother who died of a drug overdose and how his mother and brother survived in the aftermath), he is intrigued by Moore. Jones jumps right into the story of Dolemite, a kung fu-fighting pimp, equipped with over-the-top sex scenes, high-speed car chases and a badass army of kung-fu fighting women sex workers.
While studio representatives mock him to his face for being overweight and inexperienced at being a movie star, let alone making an entire movie, Murphy puts all of his magic into Moore who literally goes for broke to try to prove everyone who’s ever doubted him wrong. With the same comedic and dramatic balance Murphy brought to Jimmy Early, Moore becomes a character you want to see succeed. Murphy encapsulates perfectly the eagerness and desperation of an aging Black man brimming with talent in a racist world that’s hellbent on diffusing his light.
It’s also noteworthy to see such an inclusive story told in the backdrop of the 70s. From Theo to Lady Reed, everyone in Moore’s clique brought something different. When Moore was trying to get his comedy business off the ground, he brought Burgess’s Theo into the fold as a gay man during a time in Hollywood when being an out, Black, LGBT person was dangerous. Theo was Moore’s colleague at the record store and friend, and Moore took him all the way. He also brought Lady Reed into the fold after seeing that she had that same spark and skill that he had, he just needed to bring it out of her. He encouraged her because he knew what she was capable of and knew that it was important that she could do all of this while not having the conventional look of every other woman in Hollywood. If this were 2019, then Rudy Ray Moore would be the definition of “everybody eats.” The most important thing was making sure those who helped him out were good.
If all is right in the world, Da’Vine Joy Randolph would be one of the most booked and busy up-and-comers in Hollywood after her breakout turn as Lady Reed. From the moment she steps on screen and sucker-punches her cheating boyfriend to her beaming chemistry with Eddie Murphy during the Dolemite/Lady Reed scenes where she more than holds her own with the icon, it’s clear that she is a force.
One of the biggest highlights of the film was the banter between Murphy and Snipes. Campy, over-the-top and oh so good, this could very well be Snipes’ new lane and oozes potential for the duo’s pairing in the upcoming sequel Coming 2 America. These two upcoming Murphy projects share more than just co-stars; both are helmed by the same director (Craig E. Brewer), and share costume designer (Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter). Add to that Murphy’s 2020 return to stand-up, and it’s clear that he is truly returning to form.
Even if Dolemite Is My Name isn’t bestowed with accolades, (and Murphy, Snipes and Randolph should be) that’s not what’s most important in the long game. Just like Moore learns, Murphy doesn’t need the validation of a white system when he’s got the love, respect and support of the people. And that long-standing love is sure to continue once fans see Dolemite is My Name.
Not only does he turn in a great performance, he looks like he’s having fun again with his craft — which something that can’t be said for some of the things we’ve seen him in for the last several years. This is the Eddie Murphy that we saw in Boomerang and Harlem Nights, the Eddie Murphy who years later, is still at the top of his game. If Dolemite Is My Name is any indication, then it’s time to officially roll out the carpet for the Eddie Murphy renaissance, because he’s back like never left.
Dolemite Is My Name premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will debut in its limited theatrical run on October 4 and land on Netflix on October 25.