Biweekly Binge: Documenting African American folklore
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Dolemite Is My Name on Netflix
The opening scene of Craig Brewer's Dolemite Is My Name — a Netflix original — sets the mood for what's to come. It is Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) selling himself to a local radio RJ, Roj (played by Snoop Dogg), convincing him to play some of his singles. Roj says he cannot afford to have Rudy's stuff following Marvin Gaye because it sounds like what Roj's grandfather would listen to. Rudy's persuasive and hard talking nature comes through, albeit unsuccessful in this instance.
In another scene, he talks to a night club manager to let him go off-script when he is introducing the headlining band. The manager's interpretation of Rudy's work is similar to Roj's. He says vaudeville is dead, that was 1950s. We are in the early 70s and Rudy's seemingly lowest common denominator targeting act doesn't sell. Or so the pros think. All of this, of course, can be disconcerting with Eddie Murphy, one of the most successful stand-up comedians of his generation, playing Rudy. Every honcho asks Rudy, "What have you done for me lately?" It is Eddie Murphy going completely raw (pun intended) and unabashed as Rudy, who steals material from hobos and junkies to make up the Dolemite alter ego, a character moonlighting as a pimp, and successfully selling his rhythms to the urban black community that is both shocked and entertained by the profanity-filled act.
Dolemite Is My Name is an intriguing character study that focuses on the growth of a man intent on maximising his admittedly limited abilities. It's not about a genius redefining a profession. It's about a mediocre actor-singer-comedian finding the right audience and unshaken even if he comes across as parody. During the production of his film Dolemite, Lady Reed (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) — Rudy's protegee — is waiting with a white man between shots and they get talking. She asks him how he landed in this production. He says he specialises in playing the bad white guy around town and all the black shows need that negative character. He is the plantation owner, the lyncher, or the rapist. Lady Reed replies with a clincher: "So you basically figured out what you're good at, eh?" Apart from being a not-so-subtle race relations punchline, the exchange also establishes what Rudy himself has done — finding his niche. He is not so different from that white actor. The material in Rudy's act is less important compared to the audience that he is taking it to, an audience that revels in the unfiltered language coming out of Dolemite. Earlier, Rudy and his friends go watch Billy Wilder's The Front Page and are bewildered that the predominantly white audience find the film funny. Rudy is quick to fill that void. Just like how the blaxploitation films need the white villain, an urban black audience starved off that language needs Dolemite's material.
Blaxploitation is at the centre of Dolemite Is My Name. Rudy's idea of making a Dolemite film emerges from the success of Shaft, the symbol of a then-inchoate movement. While Dolemite, the film, has everything that's criticised about blaxploitation — Rudy playing a pimp in jail, a revenge plot, the outrageously hilarious violence, Rudy appropriating Asian martial arts — it also showcases what the genre did for the black community in the mid-70s. It places African American characters as protagonists in mainstream cinema, people like Rudy taking upon themselves to make independent films and attracting white studio bosses, albeit those who exploited the genre for profit. As Lady Reed proclaims, if not for Rudy no one would cast her in a credited role.
Rudy does not care if his film turns out to be an unintentional parody — a theatre owner in Indianapolis asks him if a particular scene is supposed to be funny. But the audience laughs uncontrollably, and Rudy will take whatever he gets. The scriptwriter, a playwright played by Keegan-Michael Key, tells Rudy that he is about his art, he is trying to inform as well as entertain and uplift his community. Rudy is shut off to all those ideas. He says, "I want the world to know that I exist" and that's all he lives for. Why not? His art may not be life-altering or progressive, but he is also part of the community, and his is a story that needs to be told too.
Come 2020 and Eddie Murphy will join the list of actors who will have nothing to take home on Oscars night after having delivered the performance of the year. His performance here as Rudy and Dolemite is unimaginably complex. He is playing two characters, one trying to make the other happen. One who will never take no for an answer but be parliamentary about it, and the other who will say anything that comes to his mind, to service his alter ego. One is a man learning on the job, partially revealing his vulnerabilities, and another is a man who has no qualms about anything. The performance is a sing-song routine that is as much about timing as it is about rhythm. At one point he refers to Ricco as "repository of African American folklore." Dolemite is one too and this film on the character stylishly documents it.