Though the name is often mistaken for a dismissive term, the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s were a vivid and original trend in movies on the fringe of the Hollywood mainstream. Films like Coffy, Black Caesar and Super Fly were essentially tight, conventional genre films — the same things that lots of white filmmakers were still producing — but most of them also contained an implicit political message and a sense of community even as they went through the usual hero-and-villain motions. Rudy Ray Moore's 1975 vehicle Dolemite is far from being the best of the cycle, but as bad movies go, it's not a misguided aberration like The Room or Plan Nine from Outer Space. Nonetheless, it's fair to say that Craig Brewer's immensely entertaining tribute to Moore, Dolemite Is My Name, could have been called The Black Disaster Artist. Like James Franco's tribute to Tommy Wiseau, Brewer's film is an unlikely success story, but it's steeped in the culture and energy that kept the best (and the worst) Blaxploitation films down to earth.
Rudy Ray Moore was an aspiring singer, dancer, preacher or whatever might have seemed like a quick path to stardom at the time; you name it, he was aspiring to it. He found unlikely success in the field of what used to be called party records — if your idea of a party is listening to someone tell dirty jokes all night. In character as Dolemite, an unrepentant loudmouth whose extreme and ridiculous boasting — mostly about sexual feats — Moore recorded his first album in his apartment, sold it from his car and became an underground hit. It was inevitable — at least to Moore — that movie stardom had to follow, so he threw together his first film, a preposterous 90 minutes of cursin', killin' and kung fu.
As Moore, Eddie Murphy has rarely been so passionate and natural. Wesley Snipes is nearly as good in an understated comic role as D'Urville Martin, a reliable actor who was given a chance to direct Dolemite and, according to the film, lost all interest and control from the first day of shooting. With an ensemble rounded out by Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps and Da'Vine Joy Randolph (a winning performance as Moore's comic protégé Lady Reed), Brewer catches the manic energy and camaraderie of Moore and his circle. Written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the Boswells of marginal popular culture figures (they also wrote Ed Wood, Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt), Dolemite Is My Name is a film about persistence and unfounded optimism, a motivational tale as infectious as it is inspiring. What shows up on the screen, the film tells us, isn't as important as the energy and determination that put it there. It's a nice sentiment, but fortunately, Brewer and company managed to get results worthy of their enthusiasm.