'Dolemite Is My Name' Understands What Makes Exploitation Films Great
Sometimes its easy to forget that making movies is a business just like anything else. Big-time celebrities sell the tickets. Rich producers, oftentimes, decide what will stay in the movie and what will get cut, based on what will make them the most money. And so, it is interesting to see the public's fascination with movies like 'Ed Wood' and 'The Disaster Artist'. Despite how bad Wiseau and Wood's movies are, they have a dedicated following. And, whenever biopics are made about these people, they gain even more fans. When The Disaster Artist was popular a few years ago, I heard people unfamiliar with 'The Room' going on like "Have you ever heard of this Tommy Wiseau guy? Is this a true story?" People seem to like this stuff. Is it mere curiosity or are audiences bored with what Hollywood is churning out and they find these bizarre outsider movies more interesting?
The latest of these outsider biopics is 'Dolemite is My Name'. It tells the story of how Rudy Ray Moore created the Dolemite character and then made a movie out of it. Rudy had been trying to get into the entertainment industry for years. His music never got off the ground and the closest he had to a comedy career was emceeing at a club. That all changed when he created a new act around Dolemite. Rudy was about as DIY as possible, recording his albums in his own home with friends as the audience and then selling the records out of the trunk of his car. The people in his neighborhood loved it, but record labels and production companies didn't get the appeal. This would be a running theme through his career.
Rudy had his finger on the pulse of what made the blaxploitation films of that era great. Thankfully, 'Dolemite is My Name' has the same understanding and revels in Rudy's over the top vision. The writer hired for 'Dolemite'—Jerry Jones—is a theatre guy who prides himself in making art that speaks truth to the urban way of life. He and Rudy never see eye to eye because Rudy insists that blaxploitation audiences just want to see cool stuff like gunfights, car chases, titties and kung fu. Another example of this movie understanding Rudy's vision comes in the scene when 'Dolemite' premieres. The theater owner tells Rudy he is confused as to why the audience is laughing and asks if the movie is supposed to be funny. Unlike Ed Wood or Wiseau, Rudy says yes and states that the people laughing "get it". Blaxploitation films were never meant to be that serious. The people who bought the tickets just wanted to see characters like them on the screen who were the heroes. The makers of 'Dolemite is My Name' understand this and they support Rudy's point of view. Even though this movie isn't a blaxploitation film, it certainly has the ethos of one.
Some of these outsider biopics can feel cynical. The ones like this just reference the odd stories and behaviors of their protagonist as if this person is a spectacle. While this movie does follow a formula we've seen before, it does it well and it has an important element that the best outsider biopics have: a sense of reverence for the protagonist. It seems that Eddie Murphy is largely to thank for that. Murphy has been trying to get this movie made for the last fifteen years and was working with Rudy to get it done back then. Serving as the star and a producer, we can assume Murphy had a large creative input and the viewers can feel confident that he does Rudy justice. Not to mention, his performance is electric. Its hard to remember the last time Eddie Murphy was in anything good—let alone, anything at all—but the flamboyant, raunchy Murphy returns here, and that's the only way it could be in a Rudy Ray Moore biopic.
So, now, a whole new group of modern day Netflix users are going to discover Rudy Ray Moore and his work. I can only wonder who the next outsider to capture mainstream attention will be. Are we going to get a Neil Breen biopic one day?