Dolemite (1974) -***
When I was about nineteen years old, my brother and his friends from high school went on this big blaxploitation kick. Perhaps surprisingly (or perhaps not— I was a white kid from one of the more affluent suburban counties in Maryland, after all), I had never seen a blaxploitation movie before, and it was with great fascination that I joined the party. Weekend night after weekend night, we’d gather in my parents’ living room to scarf down discounted pizza from Little Caesar’s (my brother and some of the guys from his crew worked there) and make ourselves acquainted with Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, and Rudy Ray Moore— the latter especially. In fact, Dolemite was the starting point of the whole strange trip.
We didn’t realize what it was at first, of course. Hell, it took a while even for it to sink in that Dolemite, its sequel, and the two subsequent movies in which Rudy Ray Moore starred as characters who were all but indistinguishable from Dolemite had been intended as comic exaggerations of the blaxploitation formula, which had been mostly played out as a serious cultural phenomenon by the mid-1970’s. I’m sure we would have understood sooner had we known from the start that Moore was a comedian first and foremost, and that Dolemite was originally a character he had created for his stage shows and party records, but the movies initially came to us unencumbered by context. Consequently, what we saw seemed like a glimpse into a mad parallel universe of ugly clothes, humongous cars, and casual, consequence-free crime, where the flashiest pimp in South Central Los Angeles could double as a universally recognized standup comic and triple as the superhero head of an army of karate-mistress prostitutes, exposing the criminal activities of a corrupt mayor and police department in exchange for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from the FBI. We loved it.
Dolemite (Moore, obviously) begins the movie that bears his name in prison for possession of “stolen furs and half a million dollars’ worth of heroin.” It was all a frame-up, naturally. A pair of racist cops named Mitchell (William Bryant) and White (the movie’s credits are unhelpfully vague about the supporting characters, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you who played this particular creep) planted the illicit goods in the trunk of Dolemite’s car at the behest of his arch-rival, Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, from Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem)— who, as we shall see later, was acting in turn at the behest of the incredibly slimy Mayor Daley (the incredibly slimy Hy Pike, from Spawn of the Slithis and Nightmare in Blood). No sooner have we met Dolemite and witnessed the awkwardly placed flashback showing Mitchell and White in action than our hero is called in to see the warden, who has a most irregular bargain to offer him. Dolemite’s longtime associate, Queen Bee (Lady Reed, who appeared alongside Moore again in The Human Tornado and Avenging Disco Godfather, and who was apparently a party record luminary herself), has been pestering the warden ever since Dolemite’s incarceration with what she bills as evidence that the Superpimp of the South Side was railroaded, and now new information has come to light which seems to support her contention. For one thing, you might expect it to affect the local heroin trade if an operator capable of moving 500 grand worth of smack at a time were put away, but the narcotics business is livelier now than it ever was when Dolemite was out on the street. For another, the FBI has come to believe that some sort of huge corruption coverup is playing out in L.A., and that the Fourth Ward— Dolemite’s old turf— is somehow at the heart of it. For no reason that I can fathom, the Bureau wants to use Dolemite as a freelance undercover agent. If he can get to the bottom of whatever is happening in the Fourth Ward, he’ll go free with a full pardon. Now normally, that alone would not be enough to get Dolemite to turn state’s evidence, but then the warden informs him that his nephew has recently been murdered by gunmen connected to the Fourth Ward’s shadowy drug lord. That makes it a blood-feud, and a blood-feud is more Dolemite’s speed.
Dolemite’s release must have somebody awfully worried, because he hasn’t even made it home yet before he and the quartet of hookers Queen Bee sent to pick him up from the stir find themselves being trailed by a bunch of gun-toting honkies in a Cadillac slightly more restrained than their own. (Note that this chase scene was obviously pieced together from footage shot on two different days— Dolemite’s suit and car change every time the camera angle does.) Not to worry, though— Dolemite is more than a match for these two-bit assassins. The real rude awakening comes when he gets back to his mansion and learns that Queen Bee was forced to turn over his old club, the Total Experience, to Willie Green in order to cover a $50,000 debt. On the upside, Queen Bee was nevertheless able to hang onto enough money both to keep the house and to put Dolemite’s girls through karate school, so whenever the boss is ready to reestablish himself, he’s got all the muscle he needs right on hand.
This is one of those movies in which a wise viewer quickly gives up trying to follow the chain of cause and effect. Sex scenes featuring shockingly unattractive people (most of them clumsily and obviously edited to appease the MPAA ratings board) repeatedly intrude at the damnedest of times. Dolemite keeps having run-ins with Mitchell and White— once even getting arrested for murder— but they never seem to impede his activities. He tries to extract information regarding the death of his nephew from Creeper the Hamburger Pimp (another actor who shall have to remain nameless due to the vagueness of the credits), but Creeper’s speech is so mush-mouthed that I was unable to catch more than a couple words of his spiel before he was gunned down by Willie Green’s thugs, so we’ll just have to take it on faith that something he says is in some way useful to Dolemite. There’s (surprise, surprise) a lengthy nightclub scene involving a funk band which appears to consist of about ten black Elvis impersonators. A black FBI agent named Blakeley (Jerry Jones, from Hit! and Top of the Heap) shows up, apparently to chase down any leads Dolemite uncovers, but instead spends most of his time hassling a loony black separatist (West Gale, of Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song and Death Cruise) who runs a fraudulent church under the name of the Reverend Gibbs. Dolemite tours the dojo where his karate whores work out, and delivers his foul-mouthed answer to the St. Crispen’s Day Speech. None of it seems to have much to do with anything else. Eventually, Dolemite takes back the Total Experience from Willie Green, leading to a showdown on re-opening night at which the Dolemite Girls get to show off their moves, and we are treated to the sight of Dolemite himself (also a martial arts master— did I forget to mention that?) punching his fist clear through Willie Green’s chest. Then all Dolemite has to worry about is the mayor and his corrupt cop sidekicks, and all we have to worry about is the possibility that we may have to see Hy Pike and Rudy Ray Moore naked again.
Dolemite is amateurish and strange at absolutely every level, but it’s such an obvious labor of love that only the grumpiest audience could fail to be taken in by it. The story makes no kind of sense, the acting (except for D’Urville Martin’s as Willie Green) is hilariously abysmal, and Martin’s direction shows clearly that his talents as a performer did not translate to the other end of the camera— although there’s at least some possibility that it isn’t his fault that microphones and other pieces of equipment are almost constantly visible at the edges of the frame, as it has been suggested that currently available video prints use open-frame matting, showing details that would have been hidden in the theatrical aspect ratio. The movie overall is structurally and conceptually baffling— a comedy without recognizable jokes beyond those that feature in the markedly unfunny rap routines Dolemite delivers on occasion, which is simultaneously an action movie in which the action is liable at any minute to be put on hold in favor of something apparently unrelated to it. There are two entirely separate climaxes that occur one after the other, and nearly every subplot lies unresolved at the end of the film. In short, it looks like Moore, Martin, and company had no idea what they were doing. Yet at the same time, the sheer individuality of Dolemite suggests that on some other, deeper level, they knew exactly what they were doing, and simply didn’t care whether the resulting movie could be squeezed into a conventional pigeonhole of genre, style, or whatever. It’s hard not to be won over by that kind of guileless devotion, and if you aren’t, then I guess you’re just a no-business, born-insecure, rat-soup-eating motherfucker, now aren’t you?*
*All published reviews of Dolemite are required by law to make supposedly humorous reference to this Rudy Ray Moore catchphrase on at least one occasion (57B Annotated California Code, Section 10,273[g]-7).