Entertainment

Eddie Murphy's Return in 'Dolemite Is My Name' Pays Tribute to the Legendary Rudy Ray Moore

Who exactly was Rudy Ray Moore and how'd he become 'Dolemite'?

dolemite is my name
Netflix

Eddie Murphy is back with his first film since 2016's Mr. Church and, more deliriously for his longtime supporters, his first R-rated outing since 1999's Life in which he co-starred with Martin Lawrence. Returning to raw form, he stars in the Netflix feature-length Dolemite Is My Name as Rudy Ray Moore. Set in Los Angeles during the 1970s, the film follows Murphy and a gang of familiar faces -- such as Wesley Snipes, Mike Epps, Keegan-Michael Key, and Craig Robinson -- through a story dedicated to chasing dreams, the duality of independence, and downright ingenuity.

An inspirational tale packed with its fair share of laughs, it's actually rooted in reality, serving as a loose biopic of Moore throughout his incredible run as a struggling comedian-turned-pioneering filmmaker. While some viewers are surely familiar with Moore and his Blaxploitation films -- which, like genre highlights Shaft and Super Fly, featured predominantly Black casts and straddled the line between pro-Black imagery and stereotypical representation -- entire generations have likely never heard of him or seen his alter ego in action in 1975's Dolemite or any of its offshoots. So who exactly was the late comedian that Eddie Murphy and Netflix have paid homage to?

At his core, Rudy Ray Moore was an entertainer. 

Born in 1927, Moore spent the formative years of his life shuffling between Arkansas, Ohio, and Wisconsin, but one way or another, he always found his way into the spotlight. In his late teens, he danced and sang in nightclubs in Milwaukee and Cleveland, creating a turban-donning character "Prince DuMarr." Moore, then, enlisted in the United States Army and often performed at service clubs where he added comedy to his repertoire and soon became known as "The Harlem Hillbilly." After serving in the military, Moore eventually settled in Los Angeles at the turn of the '60s. While there, he picked up a part-time hustle at the Dolphin's of Hollywood record store while chasing a career in comedy, which is where Dolemite Is My Name begins.

With a nearly two-hour runtime, the film benefits from skipping the bulk of his early exposition and situating viewers close to the turning point of Moore's career, on the brink of his breakout comedy album, Eat Out Moore Often. Nods to his previous endeavors still appear, but rather as comedic bits. Early on in the movie, Moore tries to convince the record store DJ (played by Snoop Dogg) to play his old singles "The Buggy Ride," "Step It Up And Go," and "Ring-A-Ling Dong" -- to no avail, of course. In another highlight, Moore becomes motivated to release a comedy record, so he reaches out to his aunt (played by Luenell) for funding. Picking at the abundance of his not-so lucrative ventures, she says, "Comedy? You've been a singer. You've been a shake dancer. And one time, I think you even called yourself a fortune teller." To which Moore replies with, "You know, it's real hard to break in. I'll do whatever it takes to get in."

rudy ray moore
Rudy Ray Moore, AKA Dolemite, in 2005 celebrating the 30th anniversary of 'Dolemite.' | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Moore was also a DIY pioneer.

A recurring theme throughout Dolemite Is My Name is being fingertips away from reaching one's dreams, yet still having them slip away. In reality, Moore had small stints at record labels like Cash Records and Federal Records, but music isn't what ultimately propelled his career forward. He continued to reinvent himself and transitioned into comedy. However, Moore didn't initially have the same backing that he did during his run as a recording artist. Back at square one, he self-funded, self-recorded, and self-released his comedy projects before breaking through with 1970's Eat Out More Often and gaining the support of Kent Records. After the success of follow-up records like This Pussy Is Mine (1970), The Cockpit (1971), and Dolemite For President (1972), Moore shifted his focus to the big screen. Despite his popularity, studios were not enthusiastic about the idea of pushing a Dolemite movie through production. Once again, Moore bet on himself and invested his album royalties (roughly $100,000) to create the indie Blaxploitation film Dolemite.

There's something intriguing and magical about artists putting their all into their ideas that no one else believes in, and that sentiment is what makes Dolemite Is My Name such a captivating watch. The film captures the gratifying aspects of independence like Moore's ownership of his material and complete creative control of his movie, but it also shies away from fetishizing the intense monetary sacrifice that comes with it. Faith in oneself isn't always bulletproof, so even Moore's journey has its hopeless moments. Halfway through the feature and after the success of his comedy records, Moore becomes homeless in his pursuit to finish Dolemite, a development that is shown, but not heavily focused on. Although his lows are hastened for pacing (granted, he does crack both comedy and box office success within the span of two hours), they are what makes Dolemite Is My Name so rewarding.

Moore is often regarded as the Godfather of Rap.

While his DIY approach and his X-rated subject matter sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry in the 1970s, Moore not only changed comedy and cinema -- he changed music, too. Before DJ Kool Herc was credited as the Father of Hip-Hop, Moore was laying its earliest groundwork when performing as Dolemite. Unlike typical standup routines, Moore's act employed a groovy backing track and poetic punchlines, making for a formula that would soon be adopted and transformed into rap.

The movie doesn't have the luxury of exploring his influence after the success of Dolemite, but every time Moore hits the stage, viewers get a glimpse of why rappers have always flocked to Dolemite. His jokes are rhymed and metered, and his band is as slick as his punchlines. The show-stopping braggadocio that erupts when he recites lines like, "I want you to listen and listen well 'cause I'm that bad motherfucker that drove the devil out of hell," is one of hip-hop's integral traits, and generations of rappers have shown love to Moore over the years, from Big Daddy Kane's Moore-featuring cut "Big Daddy vs. Dolemite" to Big Sean's Hall of Fame interlude "Freaky" that samples Moore and Lady Reed's "The Sensuous Black Woman Meets The Sensuous Black Man."

Moore unfortunately passed away in 2008 at the age of 89 due to complications from diabetes, but his life was extraordinary even in comparison to his over-the-top alter-ego Dolemite. Far from a laugh-out-loud extravaganza, Dolemite Is My Name beams a tender tribute to the bad little motherfucker that Rudy Ray Moore was.

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Joshua Robinson is a contributor to Thrillist.