Eddie Murphy returns to acting after a three year hiatus with Dolemite Is My Name, a biopic of Dolemite creator Rudy Ray Moore. Like every other biopic I’ve seen at TIFF this year, Dolemite is standard, run-of-the-mill biographical stuff, taking no real risks and doing nothing particularly inventive with the material. It is a comedy biopic, as befits its subject, himself a comedian, and it is a movie about the making of a bad movie, 1975’s Dolemite, a landmark blaxploitation film featuring a pimp called Dolemite with a “girl army of Kung Fu killers”. Dolemite Is My Name follows in the tradition of films like Ed Wood and The Disaster Artist and is a loving tribute to a very specific kind of bad movie. (I do wonder if we’ll get a biopic of Neil Breen in 20 years.) I would argue, though, that unlike Ed Wood and especially Tommy Wiseau, Rudy Ray Moore knew exactly the movie he wanted to make and had good instincts for screen comedy, he just suffered from lack of funds.
Murphy stars as Moore, and this is the best he’s been since Dreamgirls. His performance is hilarious and profane, embracing Moore’s dogged determination and self-propelled success. Rudy Ray Moore is a true indie success story, self-producing his first comedy album and selling it out of the trunk of his car, and then using his album earnings to self-produce Dolemite, even paying to screen the movie himself when no one would distribute it. Dolemite ultimately became one of the great indie success stories of the 1970s, and the film captures the DIY spirit of Moore and his work. It’s an incredibly fun movie—the scenes recreating the making of Dolemite are hilarious—but if you’re not into, or at least tolerant of, blaxploitation, it probably won’t be as appealing. Dolemite Is My Name carries the same deliberate tackiness and humor-is-how-I-process-anger-at-systemic-failings as the actual Dolemite movies.
However, Dolemite Is My Name elides a rather huge part of the Rudy Ray Moore story: his sexuality. Moore’s sexuality was a subject of speculation while he was alive, but it was only after he passed away in 2008 that his longtime manager, Donald Randall, claimed he was either gay or bisexual. Dolemite Is My Name does not address this AT ALL, even though there are a couple places in the film that make natural entry points for the subject, including a scene about Moore’s nervousness before filming a sex scene. The film plays his nerves off as worry over his age and weight, and not anything to do with being in the closet. The scene works as is, but it could have been so much more, and it’s odd that the filmmakers would elect to limit their film to the shallow end of the pool. I am curious to know why everyone from director Craig Brewer, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, to the team of producers which includes Murphy, decided to excise this information from their biography. I have a suspicion, and it’s not flattering.
That exclusion makes the film less than it could be—here is an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the subject and the culture in which he existed—but Dolemite Is My Name is still a very funny biopic. The supporting cast is excellent, the production design is amazing, and the film does capture how hard Moore had to work for every opportunity and every success. It is a loving biopic, just one that doesn’t want to look too hard at who Moore loved. Dolemite Is My Name is a fitting, if shallow, portrait of an outsider Hollywood success story.