I first discovered the myriad pleasures of African American comedian Rudy Ray Moore (1927-2008) in the mid ’80s when his magnum opus Dolemite was only ten years old, but seeing as that represented half my life at the time, it seemed like much more of a relic than it was. I’d grown up on the more mainstream iterations of blaxploitation of course, but such was the extremity of Dolemite that it never would have been shown on network broadcast television. Only the miracles of VHS and cable could have brought it to someone like me. For context, at the same moment I was also plumbing the depths of film-makers like John Waters and Roger Corman, a path that would later lead to an appreciation for the likes of William Castle and Ed Wood. That the screenwriters of the new bio-pic Dolemite is My Name are also the guys who wrote Tim Burton’s Ed Wood is an indication that I wasn’t the only one to experience (and love) Moore’s art in this way, in this context. Moore, like Wood, was an extremely original visionary who wasn’t going to let his lack of resources or professional polish, credentials, or experience prevent him from saying his piece. The result was a kind of appalling thunderbolt, a film that seemed to break established rules with every line, with every shot. His catchphrase “Dolemite is my name; fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!” seemed to extend to the creator as much as his character.
Moore was a struggling nightclub entertainer and R & B singer on several small independent record labels starting in the mid 1950s. For a time, wearing a turban and cape, he performed under the name Prince DuMarr, an image not unlike the Screaming Jay Hawkins of “I Put a Spell on You”. By the end of the decade and into the next, Moore began exploring comedy, and began to release underground comedy records, that mixed traditional African American folk elements like Doing the Dozens and characters like the Signifying Monkey, with hilarious, earthy language he picked up off the streets. The exploits of one “Dolemite” (whose nickname seems derived from the mineral spelled “dolomite” but also naturally evokes “dynamite”) began to creep in to his shows and records. His comedy was raunchier than that of even Redd Foxx or Richard Pryor, and often delivered in rhyming couplets, making him one of the acknowledged godfathers of rap and hip hop.
Long about 1970, blaxploitation proved itself as a remunerative cinematic genre, and Moore saw opportunity to bring his brand of comedy to the screen. The 1975 film version of Dolemite was a combination pimp, nightclub owner, ex-con, and martial arts superhero, a sexual stud, who performed kung fu on bad guys. Directed by D’Urville Martin, who also acted in the film, the low budget experiment grossed enough at the box office to warrant a 1976 sequel The Human Tornado, and to get Moore cast in similar films for a time, The Monkey Hu$tle (1976), Petey Wheatstraw (1977) and Disco Godfather (1979). By the ’80s, blaxploitation was dead as a genre, although in later years Moore would be cast in cameos in films made by his admirers, and subsequently got the opportunity to make more sequels including Shaolin Dolemite (1999), Big Money Hustlas (2000), and The Return of Dolemite (2002).
Needless to say, we are huge fans of Dolemite is My Name (2019), and feel like Eddie Murphy deserves an Oscar he wasn’t even nominated for (and not for the first time.).
To learn more about the variety arts, including the Chiltin’ Circuit, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous