The Poetry of ‘Dolemite Is My Name’

Dolemite Is My Name tells the story of legendary Blaxploitation era filmmaker and comedian Rudy Ray Moore. His crude and comedic spoken word massively influenced rap culture. As Snoop Dogg once put it, “Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would no Snoop.” And as the Eddie Murphy-led film tells the story of Moore’s rise to stardom, it almost feels like a piece of spoken word in and of itself — conveying the essence of the legend through its form as well as its narrative.

Rhythm and tempo are fundamental to any good spoken word performance, and the same is true for Dolemite Is My Name. This is a film made of stanzas. Instead of being presented with long and drawn out prose-like chapters, we get snappy scenes that convey the feeling of a moment in time. To shed light on Moore’s earlier career we get a hilarious scene with Snoop Dogg, where he desperately tries to get his older records airtime. To show his rise to fame, we get a series of quick shots and crash zooms on people listening to and watching Moore, with his spoken word playing in the background. Eric Steelberg’s never-quite-still camera carries the energy and pace of this rise. It moves us from line to line, image to image, bringing us into the fever surrounding the performer.

The tempo of this spoken word poetry isn’t solely defined by a lightning-fast pace. Craig Brewer knows exactly when to slow down and focus on the characters and moments in Moore’s life. You can see this in the intermittent scenes of his group of ride-or-die friends eating together, whn the film slows down to give you insight into their relationships. 

Dolemite Is My Name

The Abstraction of Poetry

In Dolemite Is My Name, characters are poetic images — vehicles for ideas and feelings rather than the sum of a group of specific details. Jerry (Keegan Michael-Key) becomes the archetypal “artivist,” constantly focusing on “keeping it real.” As D’Urville, Wesley Snipes embodies a washed-out movie star, still trying to assert his superiority through vague connections to more successful actors. And Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Lady Reed is an avatar for Black womanhood in the context of Hollywood and America writ large.

Through this abstraction of mechanical biographical detail, the characters each become powerful and easily recognisable images within the spoken word performance that is the film. The strength of this approach is furthered by Ruth E. Carter’s costume design, which makes every member of this cast distinctive and vibrant — especially in the finale.

At the same time, the abstracted nature of poetry shouldn’t be mistaken for shallowness. We still get genuinely moving moments with these people, and there is an undeniable chemistry which makes all of their interactions resonate. Every member of the cast is brilliant, especially Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Randolph and Wesley Snipes, filling in the gaps in biographical detail through their performances. As a result, we end up with characters who feel like both pieces of imagery and real people. All of this play with familiar archetypes also deftly feeds into one of the key themes of the film — how much of us is “real” and how much is performance?

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Dolemite Is My Name

A Lasting Rhythm

Spoken word in the context of the western world has always been a platform for the voice of the marginalized. Whilst it has existed in various forms throughout history, it has a specific history in terms of resistance and the assertion of selfhood in Black identity movements across the African diaspora, especially in an African-American context. This film feels like an extension of that intensely political history.

Dolemite Is My Name has a keen awareness of the politics that surround it. At several points throughout the film, we’re shown how Black creatives in the entertainment industry are heavily reliant on the white people who hold powerful positions. Additionally, there’s a persistent commentary on the ways in which Black people try to be successful in a system that rarely allows us to exist as our authentic selves. Both of these themes remain relevant. A look at Netflix’s list of officers and directors shows how little has changed in production power structures, and Black filmmakers and actors are still passed over for critical recognition — as demonstrated by the low number of Black Oscar winners.

The film’s politics are most affecting when the focus is placed on Lady Reed (Randolph). In one scene, she stops Rudy (Murphy) before they go to a screening of Dolemite. The camera holds on her face. Time itself seems to stop as she notes, “I ain’t ever seen nobody that looks like me up on that big screen” and asserts, “I am a real woman.” This powerful assertion of her identity as a Black, plus-sized woman is still deeply relevant today.

Like any good piece of spoken word poetry, Dolemite Is My Name leaves you with a lot to think about. The treatment of Black women in Hollywood, the demographics of ownership in the movie industry, and the framings of Blackness which get shown on the big screen — these themes are delivered with the rhythm and flow which Rudy Ray Moore was loved for, fittingly honoring his legacy through the film’s form itself.