Eddie Murphy stars as Rudy Ray Moore in 'Dolemite Is My Name,' a funny behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 1975 blaxploitation film 'Dolemite.' | Photo courtesy of Netflix

Signifying, testifying, playing the dozens, spinning yarns, roasting, jonein, rapping— these are all different names for the long tradition of shit-talking and telling tall tales among Black folks. Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian and early rap pioneer from Arkansas, understood the power in this tradition and distilled it into the outrageous, larger-than-life character of Dolemite, a kung-fu fighting, foul-mouthed gatecrasher that became a fixture on stage, in comedy albums, and eventually a cult classic film. 

Dolemite Is My Name, a breezy new Netflix film starring Eddie Murphy as Moore, chronicles how Moore built himself from the ground up and pulled off the kind of success that, well, usually only happens in the movies. Murphy is surrounded by a star-studded cast that includes Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Wesley Snipes, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, along with cameos by rappers T.I. (in a questionable wig and faux beard) and Snoop Dogg, and comedians Luenell and Chris Rock.

Directed by Craig Brewer, the same man who made Hustle and Flow and — more ignominiously — Black Snake Moan, Dolemite Is My Name takes us behind-the-scenes of the making of the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite, which has served as inspiration for comedians and hip-hop artists, most notably Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who used clips from 1975’s Dolemite for his music video “Got Your Money.”

We begin the film at Moore’s lowest point: he’s an assistant manager at a record store in Los Angeles and can’t seem to catch a cold, let alone a break. But this intro also highlights the Eddie Murphy you fell in love with after sneaking to watch Delirious on your parents’ VHS tapes back in the day. Murphy’s talking a mile a minute, in Moore’s distinctive Arkansas drawl, complete with a receding hairline, pot belly and way too much polyester. After the DJ (Snoop Dogg) who runs a radio station at the record store refuses to play his demo, Moore curses him out and moves on to another hustle.

Then comes the breakthrough: Moore starts listening to the tall tales and signifying from the homeless men who hang out at the record store and in the streets. Instead of ignoring them, Moore visits them in the alleys where they live, giving them a wad of cash and a bottle of rotgut liquor to let him record them. He repeats what they say and re-writes some of it to make their words snappier, sharper and often times dirtier. Thus, the slick-talking Dolemite is born —  and the more outrageous Moore’s character is, the more the audience eats it up.

Later, after walking out of a movie because there were “no titties, no funny and no kung fu” on screen, a disgusted Moore decides to bring his Dolemite character to the big screen while inserting all the action, comedy and profanity he desired. Easily the best parts of Dolemite Is My Name are the absolutely faithful recreations of Dolemite: from the ridiculous dialogue (“You no-business, born-insecure, junkyard motherfucker!”), to an all-women kung fu army, to boom mics showing up in the shot and to Dolemite literally eviscerating his sworn enemy, Willie Green.

[left to right] Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess and Mike Epps | Photo courtesy of Netflix

Throughout it all, Murphy maintains the energetic, foul-mouthed recklessness he displayed in his Raw and Delirious stand-up days. We also see elements of Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, where Murphy evokes a childlike joy for pushing comedic boundaries, and Coming to America, where he thrived at playing multiple roles with an all-knowing wink at the camera. Rudy Ray Moore was totally aware of just how over-the-top his Dolemite persona was and that’s what Murphy captures perfectly. Dolemite was never supposed to be taken seriously. The sex, the explosions, the car chase where he yells “drive nigga drive!”, the kung-fu moves where his kicks and punches stop about four feet from anyone’s face, all illustrated that Moore himself was always in on the joke.

In 1975, though, there was plenty of backlash to blaxploitation films such as Dolemite. Critics feared that blaxploitation, with its stereotypes of Black people as bad-talking criminals and pimps, would set Black folks back to the dehumanizing days of coon caricatures. Dolemite Is My Name addresses this sentiment when one character mentions that audiences want to see real depictions of Black life on screen, similar to the 1975 urban drama Cornbread Earl and Me. Moore dismisses the whole thing: “don’t nobody want to see that shit!” 

It was a revolutionary act for the time. Moore made a film that his friends and devoted fanbase wanted to see, not a cookie-cutter film that would appease the white folks at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. He didn’t care what white people thought about Dolemite, except for when he needed financing. Moore embodied the “For Us, By Us” ethos that we see in indie Black filmmakers today. In fact, it’s this backdrop that makes Murphy the perfect actor to breathe new life into Moore and Dolemite. Like Moore, Murphy is self-made and his work is talked about in derisive terms — remember his Oscars snub after an electrifying performance as Jimmy Early in 2006’s Dreamgirls? Also like Moore, Murphy has a fiercely devoted fanbase and continues to make work that, despite the sometimes questionable quality, does put Black characters and stories front and center in ways Hollywood still doesn’t do very often. 

While Dolemite Is My Name is enjoyable, it can hit some familiar notes too often. The music drops are welcome but on the nose. It would have been great to hear some lesser known funk and R&B hits. We get the requisite “there’s no way this will ever work” speeches from detractors and a few too many montages that are typical of “let’s put on a show!” kind of movies.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph plays Lady Reed, the woman who becomes Rudy Ray Moore’s protege. | Photo courtesy of Netflix

The movie is at its best when it steps away from those familiar beats. At one point, we see a close-up of Eddie Murphy’s face, his eyes closed as if in ecstasy, bathed in blue light, right before he goes on stage. It’s a stunning and beautiful image that made me wish the movie had taken on more visual risks like this. There is another fantastic scene where Moore, played by Murphy, stumbles upon a photo of his father, who abused him as a child, and he begins cursing him out. Then he repeats his tirade, this time looking at his reflection in a mirror and back at the photo. It is unclear whether he is still talking about his father or himself but this ambivalence electrifies the scene.

Wesley Snipes is hilarious as D’Urville Martin, a preening, name-dropping diva of an actor who agrees to direct Dolemite. Snipes’ portrayal of Martin as a sort of coked-out savant, who manages to make astute observations while in a daze, is inspired casting.

Da’Vine Joy Randolph is outstanding as Lady Reed, who becomes Moore’s protege after he sees her being abused by her husband. The way she is introduced is troubling, because it reenforces stereotypes about Black women being impervious to pain. But Randolph infuses Lady Reed with pathos and blunt humor despite this and some other questionable writing that left me wondering: what would this film have been like with a Black writer and director? 

Ultimately, it’s hard not to enjoy Dolemite Is My Name. Eddie Murphy completely takes up the screen with a bold and brash performance — he’s probably the only other comedian besides Bernie Mac who can bend “motherfucker” into a noun, verb and adjective, and make it sound so beautiful. Murphy has appeared in a great deal of middling material over the past two decades — Norbit, Meet Dave, Pluto Nash, A Thousand Words, anyone? — but he never lost his gift for performing. He just hasn’t been getting the kind of material that lets him show the full range of what he can do. With Dolemite Is My Name, it’s a joy to watch the cast faithfully recreate scenes from Dolemite and to see Eddie Murphy be at his Eddie Murphy-est again.