Fantastic Fest Movie Reviews Movies

Fantastic Fest 2019: “Dolemite Is My Name” Film Review

At the Alamo Drafthouse — home of Fantastic Fest — on the evening of September 22, it seemed like everyone was talking about the same thing: Secret Screening #1. Every year, Fantastic Fest has secret screenings; some years it’s an open secret, while others are better kept. This one seemed to fall into the latter category, as none of the whispers I heard were saying “Dolemite Is My Name.”

The film is based on the true story of Rudy Ray Moore, who was (at different times) a comedian, musician, singer, actor and producer. Eddie Murphy stars as the man himself, with a supporting cast that almost couldn’t be more impressive: Wesley Snipes as D’Urville Martin, Mike Epps as Jimmy Lynch, Keegan Michael-Key as Jerry Jones, Craig Robinson as Ben Taylor, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed, Tituss Burgess as Theodore Toney and Luenell as Moore’s aunt.

T.I. and Snoop Dogg appear as unnamed characters. See? The cast is so great that even those two didn’t even have names! There are a couple of other big stars that show up, but we won’t spoil all the fun.

At the beginning of the movie, Moore is an assistant manager at a record store, his glory days in the music business long behind him. But then he hears a unique set of stories from a local homeless man, and he turns it into a comedy routine as the character of Dolemite — a badass pimp.

Before long, he’s touring and playing to black crowds all over the south. Then he gets a call about a record deal and becomes even more successful. But it’s not enough. After Moore and his friends go see what critics call “the funniest movie of the year,” leaving unimpressed (the film is 1974’s “Front Page”), the man behind Dolemite decides that he could make movies. He thinks the people would like a Dolemite film, and he sets out to make one.

The second half of the movie follows this ragtag crew, most of whom know nothing about filmmaking, as they make a classic movie that has it all: comedy, sex and martial arts. The primarily black cast also makes it different from what was popular at the time; that really isn’t much different from 2019 in a sense.

“Dolemite Is My Name” was written by the team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who previously wrote “Ed Wood” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” It was directed by Craig Brewer, who might be best known for making “Hustle and Flow” — and he’s helming the much-anticipated “Coming to America 2,” also with Eddie Murphy. It’s hard to imagine that a film so focused on black culture was made by three white guys, but (and I say this as another white person) it doesn’t feel inauthentic.

I think a big part of why it works is because of the number of black people involved in the film. Yes, there are plenty onscreen, but it’s just as important that they have power behind the scenes. Eddie Murphy and Charisse M. Hewitt worked as producers on the film, and Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter did costume design (which was great, yet again). That’s not to take away from the great work that the writers and director have done, but to offer credit to crew members who play important parts, but often go overlooked.

The reason I bring this up is not just because it’s an ongoing conversation in Hollywood (among other places), but because race plays such a big role in “Dolemite Is My Name.” One of the reasons it’s so hard for Moore to get labels to distribute his records or studios to buy his film is because they’re almost all run by white men. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is one mentioned above, when a group of black men go see “Front Page.” While the white audience around them is cackling, they see nothing funny about the film. It gets across the message that yes, representation is important. Culture is important.

I don’t think there’s a 10-minute stretch of this movie that doesn’t have at least a handful of laughs. Eddie Murphy has been out of the spotlight for a bit, but he’s coming back stronger than ever in this role. It may be his best performance, and he’s given so much to do with it. I just can’t imagine how many takes they had to run through for every scene, because it wouldn’t be unbelievable that the cast and crew couldn’t hold it together while watching Murphy’s performance.

It’s fun to see Burgess in a role that isn’t Titus Andromedon, even if he only has a few laugh lines (and visual gags). Snipes was hilarious, and sometimes relatable, as a snobby actor who just gets involved in Moore’s project as an ego trip. And Randolph was a new face for me, but one that I hope to see a lot more of. She’s truly delightful as Lady Reed/Queen Bee.

There is one thing that bothers me in this movie. Moore uses this homeless man’s routine, becomes wildly successful, and there’s no follow-up about the man who started it all. To me, it feels as though that character is poor and maybe has some mental health issues, so his story is unimportant. Does Moore ever even think about him again? Maybe it’s just true to the story, but it bothered me.

As credits roll at the end, there are scenes from the real “Dolemite” film in the 1970s, and it’s amazing to see how well they recreated the feeling for this new movie. If, like me, you’re not well-versed in blaxploitation, it’s a great reminder of what those films were doing at the time in terms of breaking down walls and entertaining their audiences.

While this is far from Oscar bait, it should be an Oscar contender. It tells an inspirational and happy story about a man doing what he’s passionate about, no matter how many times he’s turned down — and unlike similar success stories, he brings his friends with him along the way. It’s a feel-good movie, and it’ll make you laugh for most of its run time.

The moment this is available to stream on Netflix, I suggest you do it.

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