There is a moment in Dolemite Is My Name when Rudy Ray Moore, perfectly portrayed by Eddie Murphy, is staring up longingly at a movie screen. He and his friends are watching a “comedy” at a local theater, but he’s not laughing. He thinks he can do better. Despite having no experience in Hollywood, the comedian and singer is driven by the belief that he “belongs up on that screen” because he’s proven that he knows what the people want. It’s this insatiable hunger for success that not only made Moore and his "Dolemite" character an underground favorite, but it’s what makes this fictionalized account of his life so enjoyable. Watching Moore employ alchemy to turn “nos” into “yeses” is magical and inspirational, but also upsetting, because decades later, not much has changed for men and women like Rudy Ray Moore in Hollywood.
Born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1927, Rudolph Frank Moore was a singer, comedian and movie producer who earned a loyal following by being innovative and tenacious in the creation of his art. He is affectionately regarded by many as the godfather of rap for his humorous, rhyming stories born from the African-American storytelling tradition. He entertained with several personas like the “Harlem Hillbilly” and “Prince Dumar,” but his most famous character is a poetic pimp named Dolemite, who regaled audiences with tales of his sexual prowess. So, it’s no wonder that Eddie Murphy befriended Moore and labored for years to get his life story brought to the screen.
“We were at Stevie’s on the strip on Ventura Boulevard,” Murphy tells BET of the last time he spoke to Moore before his death in 2008. “He was performing there and we went to go see him and we talked about making the movie. But he just wanted to go on the road. He wanted to do stand up. He said, ‘Man, let’s go on the road together, man… People want to see us on stage together!’ And I said, ‘I ain’t got no act.’ He said, ‘You don’t need no ACK!’”
Murphy, one of the biggest box-office draws in movie history, spent the next decade trying to get the film on Rudy Ray Moore’s life made. While his personal career trajectory did not parallel Rudy’s (Murphy was barely 20 when he became a regular on Saturday Night Live and starred in Trading Places at 22) Murphy had as hard a time convincing executives to greenlight his movie as Rudy did with his first film, Dolemite, and with considerably more experience.
But an undaunted Murphy put his pride to the side and did whatever he needed to do to get this film made, even doing Dolemite impressions to a room full of young executives who didn’t know who Rudy Ray Moore was.
“When we went to pitch it to Netflix there was a bunch of younger people in the room — most people of a certain age don’t even know who Rudy Ray Moore was because he wasn’t in the mainstream,” Murphy explains. “He made his success on the underground. I was pitching the story and did some of his stuff during my pitch so they knew what I was talking about.”
Demonstrating a humble persistence, Eddie Murphy should be rewarded for not only staying the course, but assembling an amazing cast to tell this underdog story. Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Titus Burress and Da’Vine Joy Randolph round out the main cast while Chris Rock, Snoop Dogg and T.I. appear in supporting roles. Inspired by films like Ed Wood and Bowfinger, about misfits trying to make a movie, Murphy creates a movie within a movie that is twice as good as any of us deserve.
“I think it’s revolutionary,” says Keegan-Michael Key, who plays screenwriter Jerry Jones. “It speaks to Eddie’s star power, but it also has this wonderful homemade, DIY quality about it, and I hope that inspires young filmmakers and producers of color to say, ‘I could strive for that.’ But let’s make sure we’re striving for the excellence of what Dolemite Is My Name is, mixed with the perseverance of what Dolemite was. The thing that we should all stand up and clap for Rudy Ray Moore for, the thing that we should remember and recognize, is his perseverance.”
Da’Vine is transcendent as Rudy Ray Moore’s protege, Lady Reed, so much so that when she utters lines like “I’ve never seen anyone that looks like me up on that screen,” you feel that this role is personal for her. The significance of this movie being created is not lost on her.
“You come to learn and understand the privilege that it is to be in this position. The responsibility and the duty that you have as a person of color,” she says. “So, as we do this press, it’s really crucial, the message is, if Eddie can see the void, if he’s done all these movies -- he could do anything he wanted -- and he’s been wanting to do this for 15 years, that tells you something. It took 15 years for someone at the top of the food chain to make this happen. That keys you with where we’re at. We’ve come a long way, but it shows you how far we need to continue to go.”
Dolemite Is My Name is streaming now on Netflix.
Photo Credit: Netflix