Late in Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name, a loving biopic about plucky underdog filmmaking written by the masters of loving biopics about plucky underdog filmmakers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood), underground comedy phenomenon Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy in a dynamite comeback role) is ecstatic that he can finally share his no-budget movie Dolemite with his audience. While one of the many technically inept but uproariously bizarre and entertaining sequences roll on the big screen, the theater owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) asks Moore what his film’s supposed to be—action, comedy, awkward martial arts? Moore answers with the twinkle-in-your-eye enthusiasm that only Murphy can pull off without a hint of irony: “It’s a comedy, and it’s sexy, and it’s action. It’s a total entertainment experience.”
Moore’s obsession with entertaining his audience by any means necessary, budgetary and technical restraints—or any tonal cohesion, for that matter—be damned, is what makes his work stand out and endure amongst ’70s blaxploitation history. Film buffs can appreciate the social significance of some blaxploitation classics, but how often do we have the desire to sit through them without the goal of grasping their historical context? Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song may be vital landmark for the genre, but it’s borderline unwatchable today due to its didactic and episodic structure as well as its suffocating art-house aesthetic. Yet pop in a Rudy Ray Moore vehicle and you’re bound to have a good time, despite, and sometimes due to, the technical shortcomings and the persistently crass content. So to better prepare yourself for Dolemite Is My Name and to laugh your ass off in the process, put your weight on it and watch these four Moore flicks.
After becoming an underground hit with his comedy records where Moore took on the persona of Dolemite, a cocksure pimp and a badass pussy magnet who roasts his enemies in rhyme, he set his sights on the silver screen after realizing that there were not many black comedy voices in movies. In keeping with his brand of blind ambition and fearless self-confidence, he gathered his friends and colleagues, none of whom had any experience in filmmaking, and set out to make his first feature with almost a nonexistent budget. This, at a time when filmmaking required a hell of a lot more money and expertise than grabbing a consumer DSLR camera and a Final Cut Pro license.
The technical outcome is predictably terrible, and adds oodles to Dolemite’s charm as a so-bad-it’s-good blaxploitation staple. The awkward framing, stiff acting, lethargic editing, cheap production design, and over-the-top infallibility of the protagonist have provided endless inspiration for blaxploitation parodies over the decades, from Aries Spiers’ Dolemite skits on Mad TV to the underrated 2010 comedy Black Dynamite. A lot of the jabs at the film’s technical ineptitude are on point, with one exception: It’s always made fun of for having boom mics appear on top of the frame. This particular “goof” is not the film’s fault—the fault of exhibitors who didn’t mask the aspect ratio properly when the print was shown in grindhouse theaters.
What makes Dolemite different from the likes of The Room or Plan 9 from Outer Space is that Moore is always in on the joke. He doesn’t care if we laugh at him or with him; everything’s fine as long as we’re having fun. The shoestring plot of Dolemite getting out of prison and exacting sweet revenge on the cops and competitors who framed him is used as an excuse to string together as many rhyming jokes, kung-fu fights by a pudgy middle-aged man who had zero martial arts training, and lots and lots of naked breasts.
There’s also of course the added power fantasy of black audiences seeing a black man on the big screen punishing white villains in increasingly violent and creative ways, such as the iconic sequence where Dolemite makes a white villain dance by shooting at his legs, before killing that “rat-soup-eating motherfucker” in cold blood. (I think we should all make “Rat-soup-eating motherfucker” a go-to burn from now on.)
The Human Tornado is basically the Evil Dead 2 to Dolemite’s The Evil Dead, a more or less remake of the first film with a bigger budget and more technical expertise, disguised as a sequel. The plot is the same; Dolemite takes out the competition and crooked cops while scoring with enough white women to make any racist’s head explore. This time, Moore doubles down on his self-aware humor, even opting to break the fourth wall in some places to veer The Human Tornado into straight-up self-parody territory, like instant replay to prove that Moore, not a stuntman, performed a dangerous jump. While he at least attempted to give some weight of seriousness to his “kung-fu” in Dolemite, he leans in heavily on making up his own brand of twitchy martial arts in The Human Tornado, finalizing his trademark intimidation moves that include gobbling like a turkey and sliding his neck side to side like a wino doing the Walk Like an Egyptian dance.
The white racist characters are played with such over-the-top cartoonish performances, that they become a flip side to the way black characters were portrayed in minstrel shows, giving this horrid stain in American history a taste of its own medicine. If you watch Dolemite and then move onto the biopic, you might be surprised to see Murphy’s Moore shooting scenes that aren’t in that movie. That’s because Alexander and Karaszevski decided to combine scenes from both Dolemite and The Human Tornado to depict Moore’s experiences shooting Dolemite. This storytelling choice makes sense, since a lot of the iconic lines and scenes attributed to Dolemite actually come from The Human Tornado. This includes the sex scene where Dolemite performs so well the ceiling falls down and the car chase with Dolemite screaming, “Drive nigger, drive!” So if you don’t have time to see all four movies I lay out here before watching Dolemite Is My Name, make sure to watch Dolemite and The Human Tornado to get the full picture.
With the batshit crazy Petey Wheatstraw, Moore adds horror to his unholy mix of action/comedy/kung-fu/parody/soft-core porn. (Well, it’s horror if you find depictions of hell that look like a crimson-drenched country brothel a day after a government raid and “demons” with horns made out of play doh to be terrifying.) The film begins with the birth of the protagonist, whose mother first gives birth to a watermelon before pushing Petey (Moore) out as a fully-grown, smack-talking teenager. Petey then grows up to become an ass-kicking kung-fu legend who gets killed during a drive-by and has to agree to marry the butt-ugly daughter of the Devil (G. Tito Shaw) in order to return to earth and, you guessed it, exact revenge on those who wronged him. Even though he technically plays another character, Petey is a stand-in for Dolemite without a smidge of difference in character and delivery.
One would expect Moore to steer clear of melodrama with such a wacky premise, but his tendency to ignore all tonal norms of narrative structure yields a go-for-broke, no-fucks-given derision, following goofy comedy scenes with harrowing violence and tragedy (including the completely straight-faced depiction of a child being murdered). This kitchen sink approach turns Petey Wheatstraw into the most fascinating study piece for film buffs, if not the most consistently entertaining. The constantly emerging motif of watermelons alone, and how they relate to the racial stereotype attached to them, has likely yielded a film school theses.
“Dolemite goes disco while telling kids not to do PCP” is the easy pitch here. Once again, Moore technically plays a different character named Tucker, the titular Disco Godfather who used to be a cop but now owns a disco club, going after the angel dust dealers who messed up his basketball prodigy nephew (Julius Carry) by pushing the drug on him. Once again, he pretty much reprises the Dolemite role. Moore tries on a new catchphrase this time around with, “Put your weight on it!”, which he repeats over and over and over again during the film’s many disco dance scenes. But the real catchphrase turns out to be, “What has he haaad!?”, which he asks with epic feels to any random character about his overdosed nephew.
The first act runs as an after-school special in the form of a theatrical feature, complete with hyper exaggerated depictions of PCP use that turns Disco Godfather into the Reefer Madness of low-budget blaxploitation fare. I’m not saying PCP isn’t harmful, but is it really possible that everyone who abuses the drug to see the same samurai demon lady chopping off their genitals? Disco Godfather is the most technically competent of the four films on this list—the shots are framed nicely, and the editing flows well. Moore’s motivation to bring the PCP issue to the mainstream is commendable, since the drug was wreaking havoc on predominantly African-American communities at the time, but this also results in a bummer of a story that lacks the irreverent gusto of his previous work. However, all is forgiven during the action and psychedelic horror-packed third act, where Tucker goes after the drug cartel all on his own. Just the one hilarious moment where a random guy shows up and decides on the spot to start kicking ass when he’s told that Tucker’s fighting angel dust dealers makes up for the film’s languid pacing during the first two acts.
As the square ’80s reared its ugly head, Dolemite’s colorful and loose persona dropped out of style along with all other blaxploitation staples. Over the years, Moore appeared in music videos and movies, with blink-and-you’ll-miss cameos as Dolemite in Snoop Dogg’s “Doggy Dogg World” and “Murder Was The Case” videos, as well as a short scene in the Insane Clown Posse’s first foray into feature filmmaking, 2000’s Big Money Hustlas.
During the late-’90s and early-’00s, Moore attempted a comeback for the Dolemite character with two flicks. The first, 1999’s Shaolin Dolemite, is a mind-numbingly amateur comedy re-dub of an old kung-fu flick à la What’s Up, Tiger Lily and Kung Pow, where Moore occasionally shows up to deliver beloved lines from his ’70s output without a hint of energy or even knowledge of the type of film he’s supposed to be in. His footage comes across like the reel that Ed Wood shot of Bela Lugosi doing random stuff before his death and inserted it into Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Then comes a “legit” comeback in the form of 2002’s The Dolemite Explosion, which makes the production value of the original Dolemite look like a David Lean epic. Moore, very much showing his age, looks devoid of any energy for the character. And since his natural charm and boundless vigor are what made up for his films’ technical shortcomings, there isn’t much in the way of entertainment value here. I’d skip these two and remember Moore through his ’70s work.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.