After the Oscar’s celebrations and upsets, and they are all incredible films, let’s focus on a film which wasn’t nominated, although it should have been. 2019 was a wonderful film year after all, and extremely competitive in terms of awards. But for those focusing on the Academy Awards, some treasures might be overlooked...
Dolemite Is My Name is essentially a film about the passion of making film. It is, essentially, a biopic of Rudy Ray Moore, as played by Eddie Murphy in an authoritative performance. The film also sports a fantastic supporting cast with, among others, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Craig Robinson and Wesley Snipes.
Rudy Ray Moore is a struggling stand-up comedian, who has his first epiphany when he hears a homeless man – a self-proclaimed “repository of Afro-American folklore” – tell bawdy tales about a fictional character named “Dolemite”, stories which he adapts, and then proceeds to use in his stand-up and on his self-produced records. His second epiphany comes when he and his entourage watch a middling all-white comedy. None of them finds it remotely funny. “Hey man, what the f***is this. This s*** ain’t funny” and “there ain’t no brothers in it either”. Rudy Ray just stares into the light of the projector, riveted. “This movie”, he muses later “is playing across the whole country. It ain’t got no titties, no funny and no kung fu”. Of course Rudy Ray’s thought is that he himself will make and finance a film with all of these things.
Apart from being known as “The Godfather of Rap”, Rudy Ray Moore is perhaps best known for his independent movie Dolemite (1975) and its sequels, after the comedian’s success with the character on his records. And I urge you to find some of the original clips. (It has actually been released on Blu-ray, so it is also available in its entirety.) It is an early spoof of the 70’s blaxploitation genre which has been incredibly influential on our current-day cinema and the films we love. Think (of course) of Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft series, American Gangster and, a personal fave of mine, Black Dynamite, which is equally affectionate in its spoofing of the genre.
The genre itself is not, and wasn’t at the time, without controversy. At a time when theatres were trying to lure people away from TV, an “R” rating wasn’t necessarily bad for business, so cinemas sometimes showed material that was decidedly not family-friendly. In this context the blaxpoitation movement was kicked-off with the surprise smash-hit Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) mostly self-financed by Melvin van Peebles, in which, and this was radical at the time, the lead evades racist police, and lives. (Mario van Peebles later made a film about the making of his father’s film: Baadasssss! in 2004.) Sweetback‘s enormous financial success was followed by films like the original Shaft (1971), but in the case of the latter, the profit went straight into MGM’s coffers, instead of to an independent filmmaker. Shaft was also arguably more mainstream, and certainly more apolitical. Films like the later Foxy Brown (1974) were even directed by white men and, while not geared towards white audiences, certainly scripted to make these movies more accessible to them. All of this does not diminish the popularity of these films, they are hugely influential, sometimes sombre, sometimes joyous, and also sometimes fly-by-night low-rent productions. All this adds to, rather than detracts from, their appeal.
The power of Dolemite Is My Name is not just that it is a rags-to-riches story, as many American films inevitably are. It is paean to people who found an extraordinary second act in life. It is also a story about what it took to get anything at all. About what it took for Rudy Ray to get his stand-up act, what it took to even start filming, let alone continue filming, never mind distribution.
While the film won its share of awards, it was not nominated for any of the 2019 Oscars, possibly because Netflix was already shouldering a marketing behemoth in The Irishman. This is really too bad, because the film is a joy to watch. It is poignant, raucously funny, both passionate and compassionate, based on a person whose story should be told. A filmmaker whose films are beloved and influential, whose legacy can be felt, even today, but who – for all the wrong reasons – you might not have heard of but for a film like Dolemite Is My Name.