The trailer for The Name is Dolemite would’ve set my brain tingling even if I never met Rudy Ray Moore, the man it’s about. Eddie Murphy, after decades of phoning in the work, looks awake and hungry—he’s not displaying the superhuman charisma of 48 Hours Eddie Murphy but that’s far too high of an expectation for anybody. But he seems in touch with the energy he seemed to have lost forever during his Norbit/Pluto Nash years. The cast is a lineup of ringers, from Keegan-Michael Key and Craig Robinson to Wesley Snipes and Snoop Dogg. It features Funkadelic’s banger “I Got a Thing.” How could I not like this?
But since I met the film’s subject, Rudy Ray Moore, in real life, I’m almost overwhelmed with excitement. And I’m a little moved. When I met the real Dolemite, I got the sense he was sure the world had forgotten him. He’d spent decades in obscurity before a modest late-career revival. No one would’ve predicted one of the biggest movie stars of all time would make a movie about his life. And if anyone had, they’d never guess they’d treat Rudy Ray Moore, a man whose work hinges on vulgarity, with something approaching respect and reverence.
Moore is an odd choice for a movie subject, particularly for Eddie Murphy. Moore was a foulmouthed comedian and filmmaker whose albums were sold in plain brown wrappers and a marginal figure in the niche movie genre of blaxploitation. It’s a surprise that Murphy and Dolemite is my Name director Craig Brewer are presenting his life as a tale of an underdog triumph’s over adversity. I always thought he was hilarious but never considered that he could be inspiring.
But while it’s surprising the filmmakers are framing Moore’s life as a feel-good story, it’s compelling, in a sneaky way. Moore had a singular audacity. He was an independent filmmaker and envelope-pushing entertainer who beat long odds to make his vision a reality. I think the particulars of that vision—making movies about a kung fu fighting pimp who spoke in obscene rhymes—obscured the underlying hustle.
Years after seeing Dolemite, I met Rudy Ray Moore by chance at the Knitting Factory. A goth cello band was grinding through a melodramatic cover of Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising.” My ex was into it but my attention wandered. I notice a poster of upcoming shows included Rudy Ray Moore. In a startling coincidence, minutes after I saw his name on the poster, Moore poked his head in the door off the side of the stage.
I caught up with him in the hall and told him how I was a journalist who loved the Dolemite movies. He seemed surprised a scruffy white kid knew his work and sat with me for an interview at a table by the club’s bar the next day.
Moore told me that Dolemite grew out of alcohol-fueled street storytelling.
“The beer joint and liquor store wise men would tell lies all day in front of the beer store, drinking a bottle of beer and having a sip of this wine, a sip of that one,” he said. “They’d come up with these preposterous tales. One fellow would tell the tale of Dolemite. I went to a drug store and found out it was a vitamin that gives you strength. And since I got strength, I decided I would be Dolemite.”
Respectable society sees drunks congregating on a corner to tell loud, nasty jokes and unhinged stories as a nuisance. For Moore, it was an inspiration.
And taking inspiration from those disreputable but uproarious storytellers may illuminate why Murphy chose to make a movie from Moore’s life. if you look back at Eddie Murphy’s stand-up comedy, when he was brash and crude (and, as the first 10 minutes of Raw documents, startlingly homophobic) it’s not too far off from watching the world’s greatest beer joint wiseman telling stories too wild and funny for respectable society. You can see why Moore’s story is the one he chose to tell.
The warmth and graciousness of our conversation comes through in fits and starts. It’s most apparent in the final exchange, at least for me. In print, his last sentence, “Adam, me and you,” might seem unremarkable. But I can still hear his voice saying it and how he smiled as he leaned across the table to shake my hand.