“Dolemite is My Name” a Gentle Raunch

For years there were questions about where Eddie Murphy went. It is true that, apart from his Shrek work, and a movie called Mr. Church, in 2016, Murphy has not done much for a long decade. His fans have wondered when his “comeback” might occur. It appears that time has arrived.

The first sign is Dolemite is My Name, which had a limited theatrical release on October 4 and began streaming on Netflix three weeks later. Netflix will also serve as the distribution platform for Murphy’s upcoming Beverly Hills Cops 4, and a rumored standup special.

Murphy will host Saturday Night Live in December, 35 years after he last hosted. (He appeared briefly, with only an awkward verbal royal wave, on the SNL 40th-anniversary special in 2015.) His sequel for 1988’s Coming to America is in post-production, and a movie called Triplets, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, has been announced.

Dolemite is My Name is a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes view of the making of the 1975 blaxploitation film Dolemite, and a narrowly-focused biopic of its creator, Rudy Ray Moore. (While Murphy and others insist their film is very close to real life, some liberties were taken, such as portraying a scene of the filming of a sex scene from a different Moore movie, The Human Tornado).

Dolemite is My Name has a stellar cast, including Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson (from The Office), Snoop Dogg, Chris Rock, and Wesley Snipes. The screenwriters also wrote Ed Wood, the story of another terrible moviemaker.

Like the original Dolemite, this one has plenty of profanity and raunch, but it is basically a sweet story of an underdog who makes good. As the Times reported of Murphy during production, “[T]here’s a new tenderness and mature vulnerability in this role that also comes out in person. Asked how his sense of humor has changed, he conceded: ‘I’m mushier than I used to be.’”

But Murphy’s wide success with audiences (unlike the real Rudy Ray Moore, or, say, Redd Foxx, who Moore is shown to be jealous of) has always been helped by his geniality and charm. Even “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” the SNL spoof of Mr. Rogers, reminds me of John Lennon asking the royal family and others to rattle their jewelry instead of applauding, then smiling his best boyish-rascal smile. It is not that there is no bite in the joke; it is that accommodations for accepting it are built in.

Dolemite is My Name shows Moore as a mentor and supporter of a talented woman (played by the excellent Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom he appears to love without sexual expectation, and to be (mostly) tolerant of his gay peers and kind to a child. He is an ambitious guy who sets out to make a genuine film, but when the audiences laugh, he genuinely does not care. He had wanted “the world to know he exists,” and “to be in the light,” meaning the shaft of light coming from the projection booth.

But part of the movie’s conflict early on is understanding what we are meant to think of Moore. He appropriates street folklore by plying homeless men with whiskey and petty cash, recording their way of talking and their tall tales, then using them in his act. The movie seems to want us to know that Moore “made the jokes better” and more modern, but they still seem awfully close to original. In any case, sympathy builds as Moore learns quickly, uses what he has in other ways, takes risks for himself and his friends, and overcomes impossible odds as an auteur (as happened more than once in that era) to become, presumably, rich and free to do more of what he loves.

Murphy now has, in addition to his other gifts, the gravity of age to work with. Dolemite is My Name is fun and interesting, but not the movie I hope yet to see from him in his “comeback.” I hope he asks this country, one day, to rattle its jewelry on behalf of something truly great.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.