Usually when a former mega-star mounts a comeback, he takes his career in a completely new direction. John Travolta was the king of 1970’s musicals and dance films like Grease and Saturday Night Fever. But, by 1994, his career had stalled out in the world of talking baby movies and cutesy comedies before he was reborn as hit man Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s breakout smash Pulp Fiction.
So, it’s ironic to witness the career resurrection of Eddie Murphy in his new Netflix film, Dolemite is My Name, because Murphy plays a character reminiscent of, well, Murphy himself.
The former stand-up comedian who dabbled in pop music in the 1980’s plays Rudy Ray Moore, a former R&B singer who begins dabbling in stand-up comedy to reinvent himself. The meta nature of casting Murphy in the film and the powerhouse performance he delivers are sure to be stories when awards season rolls around.
Much like Eddie Murphy the comedian and actor, his new film is a chameleon.
It’s partially a biopic, partially the story of an amateur film-maker with more passion than talent and partially a social commentary on the marginalization of black artists in the film industry of the 1970’s.
It succeeds on all these levels, but the true surprise is that the film resonates so deeply as an examination of inclusivity and the disenfranchisement suffered by people of color who only saw themselves on the silver screen as servants, pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers.
Rudy Ray Moore was not overtly political.
He wasn’t thinking about the greater good when he assumed the character of Dolemite. He simply wanted to be an entertainer. Murphy plays Moore initially as a selfish man who is willing to perpetuate the stereotypes of the past in the name of a cheap laugh in the present.
It’s only as he becomes more immersed in the white machinery of the entertainment business in the 1970’s that he begins to understand the way black artists are being exploited.
Dolemite is My Name is far from a one-man show. Wesley Snipes is a riot as D’Urville Martin, the man who “directs” Moore’s first film. Well, sort of directs his film. You’ll understand after you see the movie.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a scene stealer as Moore’s partner in comedy, Lady Reed. Randolph landed the role through the audition process, and she gives the film much of its heart. Moore may be seeking fame and fortune, but Lady Reed wants to see movies filled with the types of black faces that populate her life.
It’s ironic that Moore gained his film-making independence by playing the very characters that black actors were trying to avoid. Dolemite is My Name shows the blaxploitation film era for what it was: a step in the right direction.
It was more about seizing the reins of creative control than it was about erasing the shortcomings of decades of on-screen representation. It was the beginning of a battle that is still being fought to this day.
Dolemite is My Name can be rude and crude, but it’s also the Eddie Murphy comeback we’ve all been waiting for. It hits Netflix on Friday, October 25th. I give it four out of five popcorn buckets.