Rule of Three: Dolemite (1975)

Welcome back to Rule of Three, an annual series in which I take a look at three related comedy films during the month of April. FOR FOOLS. And speaking of fools, I hope you are excited to listen to me, the whitest naturally occurring substance, discuss the work of an integral figure in black culture.

I know we all enjoy a good laugh (for instance, the two or three times I’ve said anything funny), but I do want to be serious about something up front: I am not the person to talk about Rudy Ray Moore. I will talk about him, but I am no kind of authority on what he represents, on his impact, on the lives he’s changed or the careers he’s inspired.

So why am I writing about him at all? Because I’m going to discuss him as an entertainer, a comedian, an actor…basically the way I’d discuss any other figure in popular culture.

Making that clear up front is important, because the last thing I want to do is mislead anyone into thinking I believe I have any right to tell Moore’s target audience what they should think of him. The films I’m going to discuss this year — three films starring three Moore characters — were not made for me. I know that. The audiences for which they were made are certain to have different takeaways. I hope I am fortunate enough to hear those takeaways from folks in the comments. My biggest hope every year is that writeups such as these will inspire people to think about these films, discuss these films, or seek out and watch these films for the first time.

I am not and will never pretend to be an authority on anything I cover, particularly in this trilogy. (ALF, of course, being the exception; I am the world’s leading authority on ALF and it’s fucking garbage.)

None of this is to suggest, however, that I don’t have my own personal connection to Moore and his work. It is only meant to suggest that my connection will likely be different from anything he intended, and I’m fully aware of that.

Dolemite is not a very good film. In fact, by nearly every measure, Dolemite is an awful film. The acting, the writing, the direction, the cinematography, the fight choreography, the audio mixing, the editing…every mechanical element of this film hovers somewhere south of competence.

And yet it’s fantastic. I don’t mean that in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. Rather, I mean that Dolemite is good in ways almost completely separate from what we usually admire in films. Dolemite succeeds on its charm and earnestness…exactly as Moore himself did.

For an extremely brief period, Moore — through sheer force of will — managed to become a movie star. He wasn’t much of an actor, a looker, or a fighter, but his films would treat him as all three. That’s okay; films are fiction. What matters is how much or how little we, in the audience, accept that fiction. Moore was such a charming son of a bitch that it was, and remains, surprisingly easy.

Dolemite has a plot only in the sense that one scene follows another rather than plays over top of it. There’s precious little logic and even less narrative. With better writing, it’s the sort of thing we could call a character sketch. As it stands, I don’t think we know anything more about Dolemite by the end of the film than we do in his very first scene: He’s a black man with a sense of humor who commands respect, even from the warden of the jail that holds him.

In flashback, we learn that Dolemite was arrested by corrupt cops who planted drugs in his vehicle, framing him as the source of the drugs that have increasingly become a problem in their jurisdiction. While he’s incarcerated, though, the drug crisis has only worsened. His friend and confidant Queen Bee bargains with the warden to get him released so that he can stop the true drug kingpin and restore peace to the neighborhood.

That sounds suspiciously like a story, so it says something that Dolemite never allows it to feel like one.

Let’s jump backward in a time a little bit, to when Rudy Ray Moore was a younger man (and amateur standup comedian) working at Dolphin’s of Hollywood. That record shop — founded in 1948 by black entrepreneur John Dolphin — forged its own path forward. Rather than stocking only the most popular records, Dolphin’s deliberately stirred up interest in black musicians, with an emphasis on radio-unfriendly jazz and up-and-coming R&B groups.

Dolphin’s stirred up this interest with its own radio station and label; if the groups it supported weren’t getting airplay elsewhere, Dolphin’s would change that. Live broadcast performances, interviews, and record debuts were common ways that Dolphin’s created demand (and found an audience) for innumerable artists who might not otherwise have been discovered.

It was also open 24 hours, which attracted a different clientele than a standard 9-to-5 businesses would. This is probably how Rudy Ray Moore found Dolemite.

I say “probably” because that’s how Moore told it, but Moore himself was as much a character as Dolemite, Petey Wheatstraw, or The Disco Godfather were. After all, he was a schlub. He had big dreams of breaking into the entertainment industry, but he was already in his 40s and couldn’t get it through his thick skull that black entertainers had relatively little success in finding wide audiences.

Truly talented individuals might — might — be able to break through, but Moore was not one of those individuals. He had heart and he had drive and he had commitment. But that wasn’t enough. It would get him nowhere. It couldn’t have gotten him anywhere, and he would have been wise to abandon his dreams of stardom.

Then again, he was working for Dolphin, a man who single-handedly carved out his own place in the music industry. The existing landscape didn’t allow for certain things to flourish, so he created his own landscape where they could. This can’t have been lost on Moore, as he ended up doing exactly the same thing.

Moore was floundering as a standup comedian. He got work, but never found an audience. His career should have ended there, but instead he self-funded and distributed his own comedy albums, more shocking than clever, sold on their provocative titles, cover art, and routines. He recorded them without knowledge of what he was doing, with cheap equipment in his own house while a group of friends served as the enthusiastic audience he hadn’t yet been able to find.

Then he met a homeless man named Rico, who stumbled into Dolphin’s once — or many times, or maybe Moore met him near Dolphin’s — and caught Moore’s attention with long, rhyming stories of a badass called Dolemite. Or maybe he was begging for change and people were asking him to do the routine as Moore passed by. Or maybe he stood in the middle of Dolphin’s and a rapt audience assembled around him, clapping and hollering for more.

Whatever actually happened, Moore adopted the persona as his own. We could call this creative theft. Perhaps we even should. But within those stories Moore found inspiration. He took a name and some details and around them he built a character.

That character was everything Moore was not. Gorgeous. Dashing. Witty. Dangerous. Irresistible to women. Talented beyond belief. Beloved wherever he went. And so Moore used the character in his routines. And on his albums. And Dolemite found the audience that Moore himself always wanted. Moore had carved out his own landscape, and he made sure to ride that momentum all the way onto the big screen.

That’s how a pudgy, mumbling no-name with a perpetual squint and no dramatic bone in his body became a sexy, kung-fu fighting, righteous action hero. All because he never accepted that he was ever the former, and believed against all logic that he was destined to become the latter.

Dolemite is the culmination of everything Moore wanted for himself, and its success — the fact that other human beings paid money to watch him and his friends mess around in a sloppy passion project — was tremendously vindicating to him. Moore struggled to get by, but success sure came easily to Dolemite.

Okay, so, what in the world is this movie? Well, it depends on which scene you’re watching. It’s a prison film, a revenge picture, a romance, a comedy, an action film, a performance film, a tale of morality…

…in short, it’s everything Moore figured he could put into a movie, and since nobody making it expected it to go anywhere, nobody encouraged restraint.

And that lack of restraint is glorious. It leads to conflicting moments of characterization, incompatible tones, and brilliant madness. Dolemite is the ultimate badass who neither looks nor acts like one.

I suppose the best way to describe the character is as a tough guy with a strong moral compass. He’ll take great amusement in murdering unarmed men, but only if they’re bad unarmed men. He’s a force for good, even if he is an especially bloodthirsty one.

Dolemite’s quest is threefold: getting revenge for being framed, reclaiming his night club, and stopping the flow of drugs. All three of these roads lead to one man: Willie Green, played by director D’Urville Martin.

As you can probably tell, Green as a character feels reverse engineered; he exists to be and is defined entirely by being a direct nemesis for Dolemite. Anything Dolemite has, he takes. Anything Dolemite wants, he prevents. Anything bad that happens to Dolemite — no matter who actually does it to him — can be traced directly back to Willie Green, pulling the strings.

It seems as though Dolemite would have his hands full, taking down a man whose every waking moment is spent brainstorming new ways to fuck Dolemite over, but really our hero is in no rush. He catches up with old friends. He hangs out with a downtrodden junkie (seemingly for the sake of helping him get his life together, but Dolemite doesn’t seem to mind much when the guy is gunned down in front of him). He stops dead in his tracks when fans recognize him and performs full comedy routines for their amusement.

Neither Dolemite nor Dolemite has any sense of urgency. Nobody ever feels the need to kick things into a higher gear, and whenever things are kicked into a higher gear they’re kicked right back down again, sometimes in the space between frames. There isn’t rising and falling action, in other words; there’s starting and stopping action.

So why did anyone like this movie? Baby, you already know the answer.

Rudy Ray Moore.

The guy is so winsome and full of personality that it’s difficult to take your eyes off of him. It’s easy enough to see why he wouldn’t have had a clear path to stardom, but it’s even easier to see why people would want to be in his orbit.

Moore attracted people, and not just as hangers-on. He elevated them, trying to give them a chance to live their dreams as well. He recruited Lady Reed, another struggling comedian with whom he shared a bond, to feature on his albums and in his films. He gave D’Urville Martin a chance to direct, after the man spent years trying to break into the industry with almost exclusively small roles and background work. He took community theater leader Jerry Jones and made him a regular collaborator, as well as forged a creative partnership with Cliff Roquemore. He provided early roles to actors such as Hy Pyke, Ernie Hudson, and Keith David.

For many of these people, their work with Moore would be the high point of their careers. It would represent the closest they ever came to living their own personal dreams, and Moore did this for them because he wanted to.

Moore wanted to be a celebrity, but he didn’t want to be the celebrity. He wanted an empire full of satisfied collaborators, and if that took him sinking what little money he had into a condemned hotel just so they’d have a place to shoot their movie, so be it.

The ramshackle feel of the movie never lets up. It was and is clearly the work of a team with more ambition than talent, but that ambition is infectious. At many points you can easily envision the film Moore had in his head. The distance between what he wanted and what made it to the screen leads to more than a few chuckles at Dolemite‘s expense, but it’s admirable that Moore went for it at all.

I’m thinking of a few scenes in particular. In one, Dolemite gets into a kung-fu battle with the police. (As must we all.) He’s ultimately arrested, but not before showing off his martial arts prowess…which doesn’t seem to exist at all to anybody watching the film in the real world.

Then there’s the scene in which Dolemite and Queen Bee look on with pride while their personal army of sexy karate babes trains. In the film that existed in his mind, this surely led to an incredible action showdown. Dolemite even interrupts their training to inspire them with a rousing speech in which he lets them know just how important their confrontation with Willie Green will be. In the film we got, they do next to nothing.

And of course there’s the wonderful scene toward the end of the film in which Dolemite finally corners Willie Green and reaches into his chest to rip his guts out.

In Moore’s mind this was surely a giddy, gory highlight. In reality Willie Green makes a face and falls over, dog food on his tummy.

Throughout, though, it’s very easy to get swept along for the ride. Your belief is never suspended — oh, heavens no — but it’s easily ignored. And it’s easily ignored because if idiotic moments like these are the price to pay for a Rudy Ray Moore movie, it’s well worth the expense.

Moore is without question what makes Dolemite worth watching and what gives it whatever amount of staying power it still has. He’s a fascinating man, deluded without being delusional, magnetic without being attractive, admirable without being particularly good at anything.

Well, I shouldn’t say that he’s not particularly good at anything. While his acting may be terrible, his delivery is second to none.

Certainly honed over the course of years on stage and comedy records, Moore knows how to give every line bite. They’re not always great lines, or even memorable lines, but he digs into them with a relish that can’t be denied.

Nobody could deliver a line like, “You no-business born-insecure junkyard motherfucker,” better than Moore.

Ditto “You rat-soup-eating honky motherfucker!”

“Dolemite is my name and fucking up motherfuckers is my game,” is a line I dare you to try to deliver with any degree of sincerity. Yet Moore sells it. He convinces us that Dolemite believes in himself enough to pull it off because Moore believes in himself enough to pull it off. Moore delivers it the way only he could, turning something almost daringly unclever into a legitimate applause line.

That’s part of what made Dolemite succeed. No human being could have watched this film in theaters and believed they were watching a good movie by any traditional measure, and that was part of the fun. Moore didn’t deserve to be up on that screen, but there he was, literally living a dream. If that’s not inspirational, what is?

Moore was cutting his own path. Every theater that showed Dolemite to an audience was evidence that the little guy could win. No, the film wasn’t great, but Moore was so obviously thrilled to be making it. That was the real success of Dolemite.

I won’t attempt to speak for anybody who would have watched the film back then. I was not the target audience and was quite a long way from being born. But when you think about disenfranchised classes, when you think about struggling artists, hell, when you think about people who just want to be liked…how could they have seen Moore’s film as anything other than a triumph?

The man attempted, for a long time, to find success by the traditional route. He plied his trade as much as he could. He worked hard and tirelessly to find an audience. And he got nowhere.

So then he went a different way. He broke the rules. He found his own road to the top. And everybody who went to see Dolemite in theaters saw a man who forged his own path onto that screen.

He didn’t have to play by anybody else’s rules, which is good, because those rules are what kept D’Urville Martin having to beg and be thankful for the smallest roles. Those rules are what kept great jazz musicians off the airwaves until John Dolphin created a space just for them. Those rules are what kept people who looked, acted, and presented themselves like Rudy Ray Moore as far from the mainstream as possible.

And yet, here he was. Dolemite. Fucking up motherfuckers. Nobody would give Moore the life he wanted, so he wrote and produced it himself.

How many members of that audience went home and wrote their own jokes? How many were inspired to create characters? How many went on to become comedians and musicians and actors and writers? Maybe more importantly, how many of them left after the movie feeling just that much more convinced that they could accomplish what they had been told they couldn’t?

I’m asking these things rhetorically, but Moore — and Dolemite — provably did have influence on the larger entertainment sphere. Moore has gone on to be considered the godfather of rap, with artists in that realm pointing back to Dolemite for their inspiration.

Those aren’t hollow claims. In the film, Dolemite performs two complete routines: “Shine and the Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Both of them are long, rhyming tales, and while only one of them gets musical accompaniment, they are both delivered with a critical, driving rhythm. They’re knowingly bawdy and crass, relying on shocking the audience with language that brings one crowd closer as it consciously pushes another away.

These sequences are the highlights of the film, even though (or perhaps because) neither of them have anything to do with what’s happening. Dolemite stops so Moore can do some road-tested routines, and I’m glad it does, because it’s what he’s great at. He commands this material, and like an engaging preacher it’s impossible not to be hooked by the performance, whether or not you care for what he’s actually saying.

His was an approach that artists such as Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes would later refine and build upon, and they’d repay the artistic debt by inviting Moore to guest on a few tracks. In fact, in Moore’s later years, much of his income was made from guest appearances in the works of grateful musicians, comedians, and directors.

But we’re jumping too far ahead. For now, here, in 1975, Moore was at the absolute top of his game. He had given himself a career when nobody else would, and he had proven that there was a larger hunger for outsider art like his than anyone actually in the industry would have guessed.

What would he do next?

Well, he’d do what he was already doing. What he’d always been doing. He’d keep finding ways to get himself in the spotlight, and the success of Dolemite, for the first time, meant that people might actually start opening doors for him.

While I don’t think it’s possible to oversell Moore as the film’s clear selling point, I do think it’s worth mentioning that he doesn’t hog all of the best material for himself. That other material might not be successful, but his intention to give others a chance to shine is clear.

For Lady Reed — whose career he attempted to launch but who ended up with roles only in Moore’s own films — he provided an emotional spotlight near the beginning of Dolemite. Unlike most other characters, Reed’s Queen Bee is asked to actually act as opposed to deliver a joke, deliver a threat, or fight someone.

Here, as she successfully negotiates Dolemite’s release from prison, she cries thinking of the damage the drugs have been doing the neighborhood while Dolemite has been gone. Granted, we cut from a shot showing her with a dry face to another shot in which she has long streaks of tears, Darkplace-style, but she tried and Moore gave her room to try.

Then there’s Jerry Jones, who plays FBI Agent Blakely. As much fun as it is to watch Moore push back against and eventually triumph over corrupt white cops (and as cathartic as it must have been for him to do it), Blakely gets to do it from the inside. Two forces of good — one on the streets and one in the office — get to corner corruption and take it out with their own two hands. Dolemite was always going to be the hero, but Moore didn’t let him be the only one.

Jones also wrote the screenplay — in close and obvious collaboration with Moore — and Moore brought him back to do the same for the sequel, The Human Tornado. He reprised Blakely in other Moore films as well.

My favorite performance comes from Wesley “West” Gale, another actor who had to make do with a career full of almost exclusively small parts (almost exclusively uncredited small parts) who got a true and much-deserved spotlight in Dolemite.

Moore cast him as the incendiary Reverend Gibbs, a womanizing, firearms-fencing preacher who hedges his bets by supporting both sides in what he expects will be a coming race war. To his parishioners, his support of the police is an act. To the police, his support of his parishioners is an act. I won’t pretend Gale is a fantastic actor, but he does an excellent job with the material.

Moore even hands him one the film’s biggest laughs as the police walk in on him mid-sermon and he shifts direction on a dime.

“We’ll create our own war, and we don’t need no redneck mother…oh yes Lord, mothers are the best friends we have!”

Then there’s a great scene later on when Dolemite shows up to the church to press Gibbs for information, and several corpses sit up in their caskets to point guns at him.

It’s a setup that makes exponentially less sense the more you think about it, but it’s a cool idea and an irresistible visual, so it’s in the film. One might expect the ass-kicking Dolemite to start flipping caskets and kung-fu kicking guns out of hands, but instead he admires Reverend Gibbs’ successful trick. There’s a mutual respect. Dolemite lets Gibbs win this round.

Don’t let me oversell Dolemite as a non-stop thrillride. This thrillride makes frequent stops. Things happen in every scene, but everything happens so damned slowly.

You forget you’re watching a movie at times and drift into daydreams. You could probably edit the film down into an incredible, giddy 60 minutes; instead it’s an often-tedious 90 minutes. But those highlights do exist, and they’re fantastic.

All of this elevates (or at least separates) Dolemite from being a vanity project. As much as Dolemite as a character would from this point on define Moore — both in terms of his career and in the way he conducted himself in interviews and for the press — he was still just a regular guy at heart, and on some level he’d always know that. He was equal parts resourceful and lucky, and he wanted that to pay off for others as well. He didn’t care about being the richest guy in the casino; if he had his way, everybody would be hitting jackpots.

And, sure, that’s an easy metaphor, but it’s also pretty accurate. Moore did hit the jackpot with Dolemite. I suspect he would have seen the film as a roaring success simply because it was finished and made it to theaters, but instead it hauled in more than $12 million on a budget of around $100,000. $100,000 was a lot of money to stake on a film that everybody advised him not to make, and $12 million was one hell of a payout.

Moore, now, had the ear of wider audiences. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the world was in his hands, but for the first time he was in a position to wonder what he could do next, as opposed to wonder what he had to do to get people to pay attention.

I vividly remember hearing about Dolemite for the first time. I had a friend in high school named Chris, and he recommended a lot of things to me that I ended up enjoying. (Most notably Mr. Show, which he assured me I’d love but which I didn’t watch until several years after it ended. That was my loss.)

I have no clue how he came across Dolemite. The internet was in its awkward early years, with easy access to weird films not yet being one of its selling points. He didn’t recommend Dolemite, but he told me about it, and a bunch of us listened to him describe it.

We thought it was the funniest thing imaginable. In my mind — possibly also in Chris’ description, but maybe not — Dolemite was a cheap Shaft knockoff. A mindless cash-in that aped something popular. Something that may have offered some degree of amusement but which certainly wouldn’t have any merit. (Perhaps weirdly, Futurama seemed to confuse the two as well; in “Jurassic Bark,” Professor Farnsworth paraphrases a line from the Shaft theme song and then says, “It’s dolomite, baby!”)

We couldn’t stop laughing at the character named after a mineral, and how impossible it would be to take him seriously. I remember checking for it several times in video rental stores and coming up empty. I remember giving up on finding it, knowing that it would never be able to live up to the bad movie that existed in my head.

I was right. As wild and unpredictable as Dolemite is — and, it must be said, as impressively unfocused — it was not the third-rate Shaft wannabe that I expected. It was instead one of the most confusing and beguiling B-movies I’ve seen, and also one of the most inspirational.

I didn’t get to see it until the excellent Vinegar Syndrome released it in 2016. They restored and rereleased a number of Moore’s films, actually, which immediately made Dolemite seem like it might be more important — and more worthy of rediscovery — than I had given it credit for being.

I’m glad I got to see it in this form, with a loving restoration that certainly makes the film look sharper and crisper than Moore ever got to see it while he was alive.

Vinegar Syndrome targets a different audience than Moore did, but the experience is still a joyous one. We’re watching it today as an artifact, a preserved, imperfect piece of cinema history. But we — film collectors so white our hearts pump Twinkie filling — are peering through a window into a house that was not built for us. We may be able to appreciate what we see, in our own way, but it isn’t ours. There’s a difference between gazing upon and living within.

We get to look back on it and admire what Moore managed to accomplish as we reflect on the echoes of Dolemite through the years. In 1975, though? Dolemite‘s audience wasn’t reflecting. It was looking forward.

Dolemite found Moore the audience he always knew he deserved. He appreciated them giving him a chance. In 1976, he’d repay their faith with The Human Tornado, a sequel to Dolemite that was better in every way. It lost none of Moore’s ramshackle charm, but it was smarter, funnier, better acted, and better produced. The director, Cliff Roquemore, worked so well with Moore that he stuck around, sometimes unofficially, to keep Moore’s films on track.

I thought about covering The Human Tornado instead, simply because it’s the superior production, but Dolemite is without question the more culturally significant film. What I will say is that you should seek out both movies, and I will add that you should seek them out for very different reasons.

Next week I’ll cover the movie he (and Roquemore) gave audiences in 1977. That’s Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, and it’s the great movie so many of his collaborators knew Moore had in him.

One thought on “Rule of Three: Dolemite (1975)”

  1. Another great read, Phil. I was aware of Dolemite for a while but had never sought it out until a few months ago when I saw the Netflix movie about Moore and the making of Dolemite. Watching what he went through to make the film and see why he wanted to make it really inspired me too. And yes, the film is not good but I can’t stop watching it.
    I haven’t seen any of his others so I look forward to part 2. I might have to go find those other films.
    Thanks again for a great read and enlightening me on some great works.

Comments are closed.