Rudy Ray Moore was “breezy and funny” in his standup comedy, Variety declared in a 1970 review at the California Sahara nightclub in South Central L.A. Five years later, a Variety film critic saw Moore’s “Dolemite” and sighed “Dull-emite is a more apt title.”
Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name” covers Moore’s career in those years, and the film is a total winner, yet a mass of contradictions.
First, the dialogue features a steady stream of raunch and vulgarities but audiences describe the film as sweet. Second, “For a movie that took 15 years to make, this one happened very fast,” says Larry Karaszewski, who wrote the socko script with Scott Alexander.
Third, while Netflix’s film is set in the 1970s, it’s really about today. Moore battled industry indifference and racism, and ended up starring in films, starting with the 1975 “Dolemite.” Alexander adds that the movie is about “black performers who are segregated, who are not given the same opportunities as white performers. We grew up in the ’70s. For a black actor to get a major film was pretty rare.”
By 1970, nine black actors had been nominated for an acting Oscar, out of roughly 700 nominees. Alexander continues, “Nobody gave our characters a helping hand, so they had to do it themselves.” When Lady Reed (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) thanks Moore (Eddie Murphy) for casting her in the film-within-a-film, she says, “I haven’t seen people like me” in movies. And now, 40 years later, Randolph says the same thing about the filmmakers who cast her.
The project originated in 2004 with Murphy, who was a fan of the Alexander/Karaszewski-scripted “Ed Wood” (1994). Alexander says they jumped at the opportunity, “But we didn’t want to rip off ‘Ed Wood.’ It had to be a different movie. So half the film is Rudy’s standup and record albums, which is a world we haven’t seen in movies.”
Murphy arranged for the writers to meet Moore and “Rudy told us war stories about making his movies.” Then Eddie called and they started doing snaps on each other. Larry and I looked at each other, like ‘We are witnessing something insane and fantastic.’ ” The project was taking shape, but they didn’t get any takers. Everyone went their separate ways and Moore died in 2008. A few years ago, the writing team was on a high following FX’s miniseries “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” — great ratings, Emmys, awards from the Writers and Producers Guilds, BAFTA, Golden Globes, etc. People started asking them, “What’s your dream project?” Alexander and Karaszewski reached out to Murphy through producers John Davis and John Fox to see if he was still interested; a few days later, they were making a deal at Netflix, with Craig Brewer signed to direct.
Moore starred in five films in the 1970s, plus a few more in the 1999-2002 homevideo boom. Initially, the writers thought the script would cover all of Moore’s films. But, Karaszewski says: “We found that all the great making-of stories were about making the first movie. That provided us with an arc. Also, we fell in love with all the X-rated record store and Chitlin Circuit parts of the story. So it would be a portrait of Rudy’s talent.”
Alexander says, “Rudy wasn’t the writer or director, he was just a cockamamie visionary who wanted to see himself onscreen. He simply wants to present a bunch of girls, car chases, kung fu, chaos and jokes. That’s always been the head-scratcher and fun of his movies: What section of a video store does it go into? Is it comedy or action or cult or what?”
The film merits awards attention. But Oscar has a strange relationship with comedies; it’s still shocking that Murphy was not nominated for “The Nutty Professor” or “Bowfinger.” However, Oscar voters have recently embraced stories about showbiz (“The Artist,” “Birdman”), and “Dolemite” expertly captures a specific era and arm of showbiz, and it’s more fun (and shorter!) than this year’s other nostalgia-drenched salutes to the industry.
As one “Dolemite” character beams about the film-within-the-film, “It’s a cinemagical reality!” The same is true of “Dolemite” itself.