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Dolemite is My Name

Year: 2019
Production Co: Davis Entertainment
Director: Craig Brewer
Writer: Scott Alexander/Larry Karaszewski
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock

It doesn't matter what the historical era, context, characters, plot or even the rating and target demographic, some movies are about little more than a celebration of the magic of the movies. Cinema Paradiso, Son of Rambow, Be Kind, Rewind, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made and dozens of others lionise the scrappy, determined creator who overcomes the historically high obstacles to getting a movie shown on a screen and enjoyed by an audience, and Dolemite is My Name is no different.

Back in the 70s, former minor recording star Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) has been reduced to working in a Hollywood record store, still wanting to be famous and ultimately deciding the way to do so was to make his own films containing the kind of things he and his contemporaries love in movies – titties, explosions and kung fu (his words).

I really enjoyed the parody film Black Dynamite with Michael Jai White but hadn't any idea Moore ever existed. In hindsight, it's obvious that film was lovingly homaging Moore's work, however indirectly. I haven't seen any of the handful of films Moore made with his usual collaborators, but the cheap and joyful aura of exploitation fun they contained casts a shadow over the entire movement.

The first step for Moore is creating his showboating stand-up comic alter ego, Dolemite, an ostentatious, motor-mouthed dandy who extols the virtues of wine, women and song with a simple but punchy catchphrase ('Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game'). Next is to introduce Dolemite to a wider world, and after a string of successful comedy albums and standup tours, he knows that means the movies.

Moore gradually collects his crew – his pal from the record store Toney (Titus Burgess), stand-up partner in crime Lady Reed (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and I don't care what her character says, she's incredibly sexy), highbrow community arts type screenwriter Jerry (Keegan-Michael Key), a ramshackle film school crew led by DP Nick (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and a diva-ish director who makes it constantly known how low he's stooping to be there, D'Urville (Wesley Snipes).

They take over an abandoned hotel in LA, hijack electricity from next door and make their action sex drama on a shoestring, coming up against all the usual travails we know from other movies about moviemaking – everything from staging the love scene to the noise of local gangs firing weapons nearby.

The film kicks into a whole other gear when the production wraps and the film's in the can but Moore can't find a distributor to take it on. Where plenty of other movies about movies have focused only on the making, Dolemite is one of the few that shows what an even bigger battle it is to have a movie screened – how distributors and cinemas are a whole other high bar to reach.

But Moore doesn't give in, approaching the distribution as scrappily as he does the making, booking it in a single theatre in a faraway city where he believes he'll be able to convince potential backers people want his film. The rest is history, and as one of the final title cards says, Moore and his gang went on to make seven more.

The fantastic script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski deftly weaves in several thematic elements – some I might have imagined. There's a fairly overt subtext about how Moore is on a constant and unconscious mission to prove to the long lost father who abandoned him that he's worth something. There's a strong awareness of the relationship between the artist and his audience, made most obvious in the final scene. When the big premiere night sees screenings put on until the small hours of the morning because of the huge demand, Moore stands outside on the sidewalk entertaining the crowd instead of secreting himself inside for his own premiere.

There's also an interesting idea I saw about confidence and self. As himself, Rudy has his doubts – whether it's because of the silent judgment of his absent father or when he talks to Lady Reed about how ridiculous he fears he looks in the big sex scene because of his 'big old belly' with a kind of sombre fear about mortality.

But when he puts on the blazing white suit and flamboyant fedora and picks up the cane, he transforms his whole personality into Dolemite, and that guy doesn't have any doubts or fears like Rudy himself does. It's not only a motif very suited to the idea of making it in Hollywood, where overconfident bluster can take you as far (or further) than skill or talent, it refers to a phenomenon a lot of us can relate to, of building a better version of ourselves who can do the things we'd like to but aren't brave enough to try while wearing our own clothes.

I also think this is the movie that should have received all the fawning about representation the world gave Black Panther. Nowadays any moviemaking venture is seen as worthy and creatively legitimate, but we forget that long before the Tarantino era there were whole swathes of the industry seen with the same critical eye as little kids torturing animals because of the tasteless trash they produced.

Moore and his mostly-African American casts and crews toiled in the shadows, far from the spotlight of 'legitimate' moviemaking along with the other grindhouse movements, and to have what seems like every other high profile black actor working today portray them in all their handlebar moustached, effeminate, plus-sized and fast-talking glory must feel like very hard-earned vindication.

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