TORONTO — If there’s one thing that Hollywood loves, it’s films about the hometown business. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land, The Artist, Sunset Boulevard, Tropic Thunder, The Day of the Locust, Slums of Beverly Hills, Trumbo, Saving Mr. Banks and Hollywoodland, just to name a few. (Then there’s a subset of this genre dedicated entirely to stories about Marilyn Monroe, a well that never seems to run dry.)
There’s just one issue with these films: They suffer from a self-indulgent racial myopia. Films that tell stories of what it’s like to be a minority in Hollywood are all too rare. Enter Dolemite Is My Name, a new Netflix film starring Eddie Murphy that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Directed by Craig Brewer, Dolemite Is My Name shares some familiar beats with your typical film about the movie business, namely a persevering protagonist who dreams of making it big but is down on his luck. This time, he’s played by Murphy, who stars as Rudy Ray Moore, the real-life figure who crafted the Dolemite character and the blaxploitation-era films centered on him.
Moore is an over-the-hill vaudevillian with a potbelly who works as the assistant manager of a record store in Los Angeles and never seemed to catch a break. He sings, he dances, he tells jokes. When he left his sharecropping daddy back in Arkansas, he dreamed of becoming a movie star.
Dolemite Is My Name tells the story of how that finally happened and the challenges that Moore faced getting Dolemite made. Although he didn’t know a thing about filmmaking, Moore miraculously assembled a team through his own grit, hustle and charisma. He persuades a hoity-toity thespian named Jerry Jones (Keegan-Michael Key) to co-write the first Dolemite film with him after the character he’s created becomes a hit on the black nightclub circuit. Dolemite wears a wig, carries a cane, dresses like a pimp and tells jokes in verse. Moore doesn’t have the looks, acting ability or panache of Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier, but he has something else: a tremendous knack for entertaining, and an understanding that sometimes a little crude humor makes you forget that you’re broke.
Moore’s director, D’Urville Martin (Wesley Snipes) is a lot like Jerry Jones: a black actor with real credits who can’t break out of the shadows and into the meaty, demanding roles that go to white leads. Snipes gives Martin an assortment of truly gut-busting affectations, from a pinkie nail perfect for escorting a bump of cocaine to his nose to an eye roll that’s just begging to be memed. It’s Snipes’ funniest and most inspired comic role since he played Noxeema in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, which came out in 1995. He upstages Murphy, who plays Moore as a showman who’s been humbled but not broken, in just about every scene the two share.
Genocide, systemic injustice and police violence were among the themes that dominated the TIFF films I saw this year, and frankly, Dolemite offered a welcome reprieve. What a relief to see something so nakedly committed to entertaining its audience, and which made the case for doing so with such passion.
But Dolemite Is My Name offered more than belly laughs and a light bit of popcorn fare about how a low-budget Shaft-inspired comedy came to be a hit. So many of Moore’s struggles, which largely center on drumming up the money to give himself work when no one else will, are still relevant for black artists trying to make it in the film business today. I’ve spoken to many promising black artists who, like Moore, have had to beg, borrow and steal to get their art made in front of people’s eyes. That’s the story of the early days of Numa Perrier, Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, and of so many black directors of the L.A. Rebellion. So many talented black directors are forced into becoming new iterations of John Cassavetes because Hollywood still struggles to see how employing them is profitable.
Despite their limited viewpoint, I enjoy films about classic Hollywood more often than not. The best ones help us understand what an enormous undertaking it can be to make and release a feature film, and how many people and jobs are involved in such an enterprise. They shed light on eras gone by and the troubles that characterized them, such as the tyranny of the studio system and the struggles against McCarthyism. Plus, the costuming is just delicious.
Costuming, by the way, is essential to Dolemite Is My Name. Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter makes the film a feast for the eyes with an array of 1970s trends, from wide-lapel suits in eye-searing colors to polyester getups that look as though they’ll burst into flames if they come too close to a naked lightbulb. What a breath of fresh air to see a film in a genre that’s way too dominated by whiteness, revealing, in funny and stylish fashion, how black artists make a way out of no way. With any luck, Dolemite Is My Name will make the case for more such films to come.