[For this year’s April Fool’s series, I decided to AmericanStudy a handful of classic 1980s comic films. Leading up to this special weekend post on one of the best comedies, and films, from 2019!]
On two ways the acclaimed Netflix film thoughtfully engages cultural history, and one way it falls a bit short.
I was far from an expert on Rudy Ray Moore before watching Eddie Murphy’s mesmerizing performance as him in Dolemite is My Name (2019), and one of the most interesting and important elements of the 1970s performer about which I learned through this historical fiction was his heavy reliance on African American and African folk tales and humor as initial inspirations for the character of Dolemite. The early scenes in which Murphy’s Moore interviews a group of homeless men in order to tap into their collective memories of this folklore are, I would argue, intentionally ambiguous in tone—like Moore the audience enjoys the men’s performances, but unlike Moore (at least in any visible way) we also feel that he is perhaps exploiting these men for his own future success (which he achieves in no small measure through performing this folk humor). But of course that’s very much how culture always works, with prior genres and forms being used, re-interpreted, and to at least some degree exploited by subsequent genres and forms, and most especially by the artists who succeed in them. And as an older performer (he is already over 40 when we meet him in the film), Rudy Ray Moore himself crossed generations and cultural moments in ways that the film portrays very effectively.
One of Moore’s nicknames was the “Godfather of Rap,” and that sobriquet reflects the ways in which he not only carried forward older cultural traditions and genres, but influenced and even to some degree inspired future ones. That was true not only because of Moore’s rhyming, spoken word poetry that anticipated the late 1970s genre of rap, but also because his complicated relationships to themes like urban life and community, gender and sex, and the music industry were similar to those that rap music would feature as well. Later in his career Moore even appeared on a number of prominent rap albums, including Big Daddy Kane’s Taste of Chocolate (1990), 2 Live Crew’s Back at Your Ass for the Nine-4 (1994), and Snoop Dogg’s No Limit Top Dogg (1999) among others. Since Dolemite is My Name is set in the early 70s era of Moore’s initial creation of the character and production of his first film (1975’s Dolemite), it doesn’t include these rap relationships in any extended way—but the film’s closing text notes his influence on the development of rap, and long before that the choice to cast Snoop Dogg himself as Moore’ DJ friend Roj helps the audience think about those multi-generational culture influences and legacies.
Interestingly, while Dolemite is My Name highlights these past and future cultural influences in thoughtful ways, it falls a bit short on the relationship between Moore and a present/contemporary cultural form: Blaxploitation films (I’m indebted for this paragraph’s ideas to conversations with my Charlottesville High School classmate and friend Michele Townes). The film features a crucial scene where Moore and his friends watch Billy Wilder’s The Front Page (1974); they don’t find the film funny at all, and Moore realizes the need for more films made both for and by the African American community. I take and agree with that overall point of course, but by 1974 it was significantly less true than it had been even half a decade before: Shaft was released in 1971, for example, and it was just one of many early 1970s films that launched the genre that would come to be known as Blaxploitation. I imagine there would be ways to differentiate the first Dolemite film from other Blaxploitation movies (the new film tries briefly to do so through a scene when Moore meets with a film producer who turns down his request for financing), but there most definitely are other ways in which Dolemite was directly inspired by movies like Shaft. But no film can include or address everything, and Dolemite is My Name impressively engages multiple cultural legacies while being genuinely entertaining, funny, and moving from start to finish.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other recent comedies you’d highlight?
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