Eddie Murphy Delivers a Powerhouse Performance in the Comeback Film We’ve All Been Waiting For
Usually a former mega-star mounts a comeback by taking his career in a completely new direction. John Travolta, the king of 1970’s musicals and dance films (Grease, Saturday Night Fever), left the world of talking babies and cutesy comedies and was reborn in 1994 as hitman Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction). Mickey Rourke went from filming graphic love scenes with his girlfriend in the inscrutableWild Orchid to Oscar Nominee with his portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler.
So, it’s ironic to witness the career resurrection of Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is My Name, the new Netflix Original film from director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), in which Murphy plays a character reminiscent of, well, Murphy himself. The former stand-up comedian who dabbled in pop music in the 1980’s (anyone remember Party All The Time?) plays Rudy Ray Moore, a former R&B singer who begins dabbling in stand-up comedy to reinvent himself. The meta nature of Murphy’s casting and the powerhouse performance he delivers in the role is sure to be an awards season narrative.
Much like Eddie Murphy the comedian, Dolemite is My Name is a chameleon. It’s part biopic, part Disaster Artist-style story of an amateur film-maker with more passion than talent and part 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. It’s only as he becomes more immersed in the white machinery of the entertainment business, he begins to understand the way black artists are being mistreated and marginalized.
Murphy plays Moore initially as a selfish man who is willing to perpetuate the Stepin Fetchit negro stereotypes of the past in the name of a cheap laugh in the present. In one scene, Moore sets up a table on the wrong side of the tracks to pay homeless men a dollar for their funny stories of ghetto life. Those nuggets of living life on the margins of society form the basis of his stand-up act and the films that followed.
Although the Murphy comeback will undoubtedly dominate the online conversation, Dolemite is My Name is far from a one-man show. Wesley Snipes is a riot as D’Urville Martin, the fey impressario who “directs” Moore’s first Dolemite film. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a scene stealer as Moore’s partner in comedy, Lady Reed. Randolph landed the role via the audition process, and it was fortuitous casting because 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: pimps, drug dealers, and other ghetto stereotypes. 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.
When Netflix began making original films many critics sounded the death knell for the theater-going experience. Netflix was the big corporate Satan, and its only goal was to turn us all into couch potato drones who live solely to stream their content. Instead, Netflix has been filling the void between the low budget indies and giant summer tentpoles. Theatrical releases with $ 30 to $ 50 million price tags have gone the way of the dinosaurs. If not for Netflix, Dolemite is My Name likely wouldn’t exist, and film fans would be the worse for its absence.