Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, an aspiring stand-up well into his 40s who has yet to find his big break. Inspired by local folk tales, usually dealing with fights or sexual prowess, Rudy creates the character of Dolemite. His irreverent humour, love of rhyming and eccentric fashion sense soon make the self- professed ‘bad motherfucker’ a cult sensation; as the obligatory onscreen text before the end credits tells us, Dolemite was even a key influence in the development of rap music. Despite the success of his albums and tours, Rudy continues to push his comedy to its limits, with much of DOLEMITE IS MY NAME’s second half chronicling the production of his first feature film, 1975’s Dolemite.
The real-life Moore was idolised by Murphy, having begun his rise to fame as the latter entered adolescence. Indeed, it’s easy to see parallels between the two as unlikely success stories for their ages (Murphy was only 18 when he auditioned for Saturday Night Live). This familiarity and reverence fuel an utterly captivating performance, as Murphy immerses himself in the role far more than you’d expect for such a recognisable figure. Sure, he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting turn in Dreamgirls, but this is simply the best he’s ever been as an actor.
When Murphy as Moore admits his struggle to see himself as a leading man, there’s palpable anxiety in his voice. Likewise, the countless scenes revealing just how unfamiliar he is with the technical processes of filmmaking never feel naïve, instead conveying his earnest enthusiasm. For instance, an exchange with screenwriter Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) where Rudy explains he doesn’t know kung fu but could learn it for the film is played for laughs, yet subtly works to reaffirm his commitment to his work. Rudy even gives up his apartment and sleeps on set to save money. Most importantly though, Murphy evidently lost none of his comedic timing during his hiatus. The Dolemite character amplifies Rudy’s innate swagger and boisterous delivery, often commanding the audience’s attention as soon as he steps on stage. While most of the jokes are crude or braggadocious, I was caught off guard multiple times by just how effortlessly Murphy elevated them.
Yet DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is more than a one-man show. The supporting players aren’t given as much development as Rudy but provide plenty of laughs nonetheless. Wesley Snipes is particularly impressive as D’Urville Martin, a bit player in films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Rosemary’s Baby who is enticed by the promise of directing Dolemite. Snipes is an inspired choice for such a snarky role and consistently nails Martin’s incredulous one-liners at his crew and Rudy’s expense. Meanwhile, Da’Vine Joy Randolph provides the film with crucial depth as Rudy’s protégé Lady Reed. Their friendship is often the springboard for more grounded and serious conversations, a refreshing change of pace which prevents an overly farcical tone.
Finally, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME is an unabashed love letter to the blaxploitation era of the 1970s. Director Craig Brewer and his crew capture the era perfectly, especially through the colourful costumes, production design and music. Seriously, the Dolemite theme song is almost guaranteed to get stuck in your head. These elements complement the actors perfectly and make the film look and feel fun to watch. Murphy’s performance alone makes this film worth adding to your Netflix list, but it’s a remarkable achievement overall.