REVIEW: Dolemite [1975]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 90 minutes
    Release Date: April 26th, 1975 (USA)
    Studio: Dimension Pictures / Xenon Pictures
    Director(s): D’Urville Martin
    Writer(s): Jerry Jones / Rudy Ray Moore (story)

The game is rough and the stake is your life.

After adopting the persona in his stand-up act and on multiple comedy albums, Rudy Ray Moore decided to self-finance a feature film around the character of Dolemite. The result is bad—shoddy direction, horrid editing, and outlandish scenes devoid of any bearing on the plot itself. And yet the name has endured as a touchstone of Blaxploitation cinema regardless due to a cult status that defies craft in order to focus upon intent. Moore sought a venue with which to entertain and his creation does exactly that whether or not the reasons why align with his artistic vision. I have to believe they do, though. You don’t play this wild scenario as straight as he does without wanting audiences to laugh at him. Its amateurism is its charm.

While that’s enough to appreciate what’s been made, however, it doesn’t simply earn our blind allegiance. I can respect Moore for going big and overcoming budgetary constraints to bring this passion project to life without enjoying the result as anything other than a pop culture curio. Because that’s ultimately what Dolemite is. It’s a work of art that has impressively transcended what it actually is on-screen to become the larger than life, mythical masterpiece of shoddy workmanship its fans have anointed it to be instead. They’ve flipped the script and I applaud the effort as well as their fierce devotion to this pimp who’s fighting to restore his reputation after being framed by a rival (director D’Urville Martin‘s Willie Green) for possessing stolen goods and trafficking illegal drugs.

Dolemite would have served his full sentence with no hope of early parole if not for Green’s greed and violence. It’s the latter’s uptick in crime while the former is locked in a cell that has the warden wondering if his prisoner’s plea of innocence is true. With the help of his brothel’s mother hen (Lady Reed‘s Queen Bee) and an as yet unknown undercover FBI agent, Dolemite is released back into the world to help figure out who was behind his incarceration. Everyone pretty much knows Green spearheaded things (he took over our hero’s club) with a couple corrupt cops in his back pocket (led by John Kerry‘s Detective Mitchell), but who’s pulling their strings? This “Big Man” becomes a target and catalyst for what’s to come.

I say this because hardly any of the plot (scripted by Jerry Jones when he’s not playing Blakeley, another cop teetering on the edge of corruption and justice) cares about the “Big Man.” Gratuitous sex scenes and public raps (hearing Dolemite spit some rhymes is akin to a business card when strangers on the street don’t believe it’s really him) pad the runtime instead. There’s one throwaway moment where Queen Bee fires a girl for stealing money that has zero narrative payoff and another sequence where the so-called Hamburger Pimp (Vainus Rackstraw) earns his screen time by telling us details we already know. No one seems to care, though, as long as the random skits lead to more kung fu battles marked by their slow-motion choreography.

That fun is a result of the “Big Man” wanting Dolemite out of the picture rather than Dolemite looking to discover his identity. An unveiling will arrive eventually, but he has needs to satisfy in the meantime. There’s a reunion with his old best girl Pinkie and a getting to know you period with new best girl Chi (the women are all listed in the credits as Dolemite Girls so I’m not sure who plays who). There’s a run-in with a radicalized Reverend Gibbs (Wesley Gale), another frame job and murders to return Dolemite to the slammer, and a subplot about karate dancers that’s somehow attributed to Green’s women when we know for a fact Queen Bee’s are the real fighters. It’s one disjointed set piece after another.

Despite mistakes being made throughout (Pinkie’s wig changes from picking Dolemite up in her car to lying with him in bed; Reed applauds Rudy Ray instead of his alter ego’s name at one point; and there’s a scene between Dolemite’s girls that takes place in a room he hasn’t yet reclaimed for their use), it’s as though Moore wears them like badges of honor. They each add to the absurdity of the whole and it’s plenty absurd with its most suspenseful moment dealing with a long take of a naked Mayor Daley (Hy Pyke) and his carefully placed towel risking to give audiences the full frontal male nudity they probably weren’t clamoring for. If Martin let his cast lean into that silliness, I might appreciate the farce more.

By taking itself so seriously, it’s difficult to truly let it wash over me. It’s as if they’ve each decided to be the straight man without realizing that archetype only works when a funny guy is there to play against. Moore has that potential thanks to his knowing smile while rapping, but those moments when he’s engaged in sexual exploits or violence are devoid of that obvious natural charisma. We’re therefore made to laugh at how dumb the script is rather than how dumb the characters are because there’s no room to acknowledge the performances if we’re too busy rolling our eyes at everything else. The film is thus a mixture of subpar parts inevitably combining to bring each other down to “so bad it’s just bad” territory.

courtesy of Xenon Pictures

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