Saturday, 15 Aug 2020

Opinion | ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ Takes Blaxploitation Seriously

This article includes minor spoilers for “Dolemite Is My Name.”

About a third of the way into the new biopic “Dolemite Is My Name,” Rudy Ray Moore, a failed singer turned underground stand-up comedian, played by Eddie Murphy, meets with a movie producer, played by the rapper T.I., in hopes of starring in his first feature film. It’s the mid-1970s, and the producer’s office walls are lined with posters from such Blaxploitation hits as “Blacula” and “Black Mama, White Mama.”

But the producer is skeptical. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep doing these pictures,” he tells Rudy. The studio’s approach is shifting from schlock fare, he continues, to wholesome stories that will “make you feel good on the inside” — like “Cornbread, Earl and Me,” about a boy who makes it out of the ghetto.

Rudy, undeterred by changing tastes or his own lack of filmmaking experience, decides to self-finance and self-produce his movie. And thus “Dolemite” is born, a low-budget production about a pimp/nightclub owner featuring the three key things Rudy wants to see in a movie: nudity, comedy and kung-fu.

The 1975 movie “Dolemite,” an actual movie starring the real Rudy Ray Moore, has all of this and more. It’s also bad — so-bad-it’s-kind-of-enjoyable-bad, but still, it’s bad. The acting is wooden. A boom mic is constantly visible. Mr. Moore’s kung-fu moves are middling, though his commitment is admirable.

But the scrappy schlockfest of “Dolemite” (the movie cost $100,000 to make) is what makes the breezy “Dolemite Is My Name,” now streaming on Netflix, one of the more fascinating entries in the largely drab Hollywood biopic genre as of late. Like the titular, famously terrible director in “Ed Wood,” or Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist,” Rudy isn’t “great” in the conventional sense. Yet he is persistent and confident, exactly what a segment of the black population was hungry for in 1975 — the Blaxploitation era personified.

When the film opens, Rudy is a middle-age man with a failed singing career, working in a record store and begging the in-house radio D.J. to play one of his old records. It’s suggested that he hasn’t broken out because he doesn’t appeal to white audiences. He claims to have worked as a dishwasher alongside Redd Foxx back in the day, until Foxx “went in front of the right promoter.” He says he could’ve had a hit song if it weren’t for James Brown getting signed to the same label and “sucking up all the attention.”

Success finally comes when he listens to a homeless man’s fanciful rhyming tales of a virile pimp named Dolemite, memorizes them and tailors them to fit his own style for black audiences in the underground nightclub circuit. In florid, foul-mouthed monologues, Rudy would take on the character of Dolemite and reimagine black American folkloric stories like “The Signifying Monkey.”

Once he decides to make a movie, “Dolemite Is My Name” leans into Rudy’s inexperience as a first-time actor while celebrating his tenacity. During the shoot of an early scene in “Dolemite,” Rudy awkwardly delivers lines and can barely kick and fight against the F.B.I. agents who are trying to arrest him after finding drugs in his car. The ornery Blaxploitation character actor D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes), who Rudy has hired as director, is incredulous at Rudy’s ineptness. He turns away from the action and bemoans to his director of photography, “I can’t stand this cat! Pretending like he knows karate. Pretending he’s a sex machine! Little kid playing dress-up.”

Rudy doesn’t exactly have the talent or expertise, but he pulls together a cast and crew through his sharp enterprising skills — their soundstage, a rundown former hotel that is now a drug den, is procured for free when Rudy strikes a deal with the owner to remove the addicts camped out in the building. His ability to make something out of nothing proves to be his greatest asset.

In emphasizing both Rudy’s silliness and enterprising spirit, “Dolemite Is My Name” might reflect how much attitudes have changed since the Blaxploitation era died down in the late 1970s. At the time and for many years after, the films were wildly popular — and polarizing. There were many reasons to speak out against them: They almost always depicted black people in impoverished settings populated by pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers; they often wrapped the idea of black power in a superficial depoliticized bow; and, as the genre became more popular, black representation behind the scenes became minimal. “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Shaft,” directed by Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks, may be responsible for kicking off the genre, but the Blaxploitation films that followed and boasted black directors or writers were rare.

The N.A.A.C.P., Jesse Jackson and others campaigned for more “positive” portrayals on screen — like, say, “Cornbread, Earl and Me” or the rural family drama “Sounder.” Even some of the stars of the genre expressed a measure of regret over their participation: “The stereotypes that we have are often what we perpetuated ourselves,” Pam Grier, the star of “Foxy Brown,” said in the 2002 documentary “BaadAsssss Cinema.” “I broke them, but I also created some, because everyone thought a black woman is a whoop-your-butt sister all the time.”

Still, for a brief period, black performers were getting steady work. Audiences were seeing more black people on screens than ever before, and thanks to characters like John Shaft, Foxy Brown and Youngblood Priest in “Super Fly,” they were finally the heroes (and antiheroes). An entire generation of black artists have recalled fond memories of watching wild movies like “Dolemite” as children, and have lovingly spoofed the genre in their own films (“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”; “Undercover Brother”). “They’re not these high-quality pictures,” Mr. Murphy recently told The New York Times. “But black people, ourselves, we were just excited to see ourselves. We never felt like they were exploitation.”

That tension between representation and exploitation is bubbling beneath the surface of “Dolemite Is My Name.” Even as he gains a following through his self-released albums and live performances, Rudy refuses to tone down his profane and highly sexual material for radio play and mainstream audiences. Instead, he hopes his comedy will “connect him with the people.” (Presumably, “the people” are not white or the black intelligentsia.) He’s not concerned about stereotypes — again, his character Dolemite is a pimp — but he does have an innate desire to inspire others like him, who might have the odds stacked against them. “I want the world to know I exist,” he says.

The final minutes of the film take place on the day of the “Dolomite” premiere. As Rudy and his friends and collaborators make their way in a limo, the reviews they read in the paper are harsh: “Dullemite,” one critic calls it. Yet when they get to the theater, an exuberant crowd awaits them. Rudy encounters a young fan who proudly boasts that he’s listened to all of his albums and copies his rhyme-play, except “I make it about me!”

The moment is unabashedly earnest and doesn’t attempt to engage with the valid critiques of the films, or the fact that most blaxploitation stars of the era struggled professionally and financially when Hollywood lost interest in telling black stories. But what it does conjure up is a re-evaluation of whose life gets to be the subject of dramatization — Rudy Ray Moore wasn’t a civil rights leader (“Malcolm X,” “Selma”), nor was he an extraordinarily talented performer or athlete (the James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” “Ali”).

And how: The recreation of the “Dolemite” scenes are silly, but Mr. Moore’s ambitions are taken seriously in “Dolemite Is My Name.” In Mr. Murphy’s performance the Blaxploitation star is never treated as caricature, but with respect and empathy (when that movie producer comments that Rudy looks “doughier” than the typical black leading man, pain briefly flickers across his face).

Mr. Moore is presented as flying in the face of the idea of black exceptionalism — that innate sense of ambition that also carries with it the acknowledgment that to be black and successful in America you must be at least “twice as good” as everyone else. His movies may have been terrible, but to many, including Mr. Murphy — or Snoop Dogg, who calls him the Godfather of Rap — he was relatable and unafraid to be himself.

With some distance, with a more nuanced appreciation of “bad” films, and with far more black-created film and TV today than there was in the 1970s, there’s a bit more freedom to celebrate a more complicated piece of black cinematic history — and even enjoy it.

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Aisha Harris is a staff editor and writer in the Opinion section, where she covers culture and society. @craftingmystyle

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