Cult Criterion: His Name Was “Dolemite”

Cult Criterion is a series that focuses on cult, horror and exploitation films that are available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Though some well known titles may be given attention, some that tend to get ignored will also get attention.

In the world of Blaxploitation, there are several actors and the characters that they played everyone knows. There’s Pam Greer, known for the likes of “Foxy Brown”, “Coffy” and “Sheba Baby”. There’s Fred Williamson, whose mostly known for the movie “Hammer”. Even Isaac Hayes got in on the action with “Truck Turner”.

Then there’s Rudy Ray Moore.

Moore is an interesting figure in the annals of cult cinema. He was never really much of an actor. In fact, he got his start in music before deciding that the world of stand-up comedy would be a better fit. This proved to be true, as he became known for his “party records” which were in essence dirty stand-up albums that people would play at parties. By that I mean the kind only adults went to, and by that I mean all kinds-including that certain kind with all kinds of kinky shit going on. It makes sense too, considering his albums had titles such as “Eat Out More” and “That Pussy Belongs to Me”.

While he hadn’t broken out into a more mainstream (re: white) audience, he had proven to have a following with black audiences. Indeed, his routines would feature plenty of rhyming and flowing, with some referring to him as one of the most notable proto-rappers. This also makes sense, as the man and his movies have actually had a notable influence on Hip-Hop culture. Indeed, rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and Schooly D are obsessed with the man’s work, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard even made a music video where most of it was made up of footage from one of his movies.

Eventually, independent producers began to pay attention to Rudy, and decided that hey, maybe he should star in his own movie. So, what would his first two movies be about? They would be based on a routine of his about a man called Dolemite. Said movies were Dolemite and The Human Tornado. Both of which are now out on Vinegar Syndrome, who over the past few years have proven to be a standard barer as far as genuine cult oddities and obscurities are concerned.

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“Dolemite” deals with…well, Dolemite (Moore). He’s a pimp who was set up by the lowlife gangster Willie Greene (D’Urville Martin, who also directed the movie) and has been in jail ever since. However, things have gotten worse now that Dolemite is in jail. Drugs and crime are up, and even our hero’s nephew died of a heroin overdose. Thankfully, the chief of police and Queen B (Lady Reed) realize that only Dolemite can stop this, so he’s let out of jail. In the process, he also uses Kung-Fu and kills some men who are after him, and changes into his pimp suit in front of prison guards (I think  it’s worth mentioning that you see more of Moore than you probably ever wanted to in  these movies.)

However, even out of jail, he’s still got some other problems to deal with. Not only Willie Greene, but corrupt police officers and a racist mayor (Hy Pyke, who is mostly known for his small role in “Blade Runner”) pretending to be a friend of the black community. Thankfully, he’s got friends in his girls, who have also been trained in the martial arts, as well as a reverend and a black agent who is more sympathetic to our hero than not.

Before I get more into this movie, I do have a word of warning: from a technical standpoint, this is not a good movie. At all. The acting ranges from over the top to bland, with actors either flubbing lines or clearly reading from cue-cards. The direction and editing are suspect, with continuity errors and boom mic shots left and right (the version with boom mics comes as an extra on the disc). The fight scenes range from sloppy to probably some of the worst committed to celluloid. To say that the movie looks and feels rough is an understatement. This is the kind of exploitation movie in which polish is far from what the people involved were able to accomplish.

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So, for such a poorly made movie, what is there to recommend? Quite a bit actually. For one thing, the character of Dolemite is just awesome. He occasionally speaks in rhyme (which gives Moore an excuse to perform parts of his stand-up routine-one in which is called “The Signifying Monkey” and has become his trademark bit), delivers awesome quotes and one liners (my favorite: “I’m gonna let ’em know that Dolemite is my name and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!”) and is an all around fun, infectious character. Then there’s the fact that the cheap production values actually add to the movies charm. This is a genuine independent production, made by people without a lot of skill but gallons of enthusiasm, and the whole “hey, let’s go make a movie!” vibe is impossible to resist.

There’s also the fact that most of this is not meant to be taken seriously. The reverend is an adulterer, the mere sight of hookers beating people up with karate chops is beyond ridiculous, and even a weird street junkie called “The Hamburger Pimp” (Vainus Rackstraw) is mostly played for laughs. Whether or not Moore and company were poking fun at the Blaxploitation genre and it’s tropes is not known to me, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Even more intriguing is that for all the goofiness on display, there is a noticeably cynical undercurrent as well. In “Dolemite”, society is largely seen as a weapon used by White America to hold down the Black community. It’s a world where police are corrupt and politicians only pretend to give a shit about Black people when it’s convenient for them. Even the reverend has grown embittered, preaching revolution during sermons and working as a gun runner for the local Black Panthers. Underneath the comedic nature of the film is a bitter, angry pill to swallow.

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Such attempts at social commentary are thrown to the wayside with “The Human Tornado”. Here, Dolemite finds himself on the lam when a racist white sheriff catches him in bed with his wife. Returning to the city, he discovers that the business he and Queen B worked so hard on has been infiltrated by the Mafia. Thankfully, he has several people (including a pre “Ghostbusters” Ernie Hudson) to help him-all while women are being kidnapped and that racist sheriff wants revenge.

If the above description seems a bit minimalist to you, that’s because when you get down to it, the plot is ultimately secondary here. Instead, Moore and new director Cliff Roquemore go for an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, then proceed to throw in the kitchen sink while they’re at it. Absolutely bonkers sex scenes (including one that features naked black men symbolizing Dolemite and ends with a parody of “The Exorcist”), fast motion that (poorly) tries to cover up the fact that Moore isn’t exactly a master of the martial arts, an increase of female nudity (and more of our somewhat chunky protagonist in the nude) and bloody violence-hell, even moments that feel more at home in a low budget regional horror movie than a Blaxploitation action/comedy.

Thankfully, the “throw what you can at the wall and see if it sticks” approach works. The worst thing an exploitation movie can be is boring, and good God this thing is never boring. There isn’t a moment in which something over the top or just plane bizarre (usually at the same time) occurs, making for an incredibly entertaining experience.

The movie is also a better made one than it’s predecessor. Granted, it still has all the bad acting, poor fight choreography and loopy direction you’d expect, but it feels slightly more professional. Or at least as professional as a movie such as this can be. The production values and cinematography have improved slightly, making it feel a little more like a real movie than it’s predecessor, and the actors seem to be more comfortable in front of the camera. Moore in particular seems more comfortable. At the end of the day, he’s still not much of an actor, but the fact that he seems more experienced makes for a performance that at least feels like he’s actually trying.

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If you love exploitation movies at their loopiest, the more comedic side of Blaxploitation or just unintentional humor and just plane insane cinematic experiences, then the “Dolemite” is absolutely for you. They are movies that are somehow enhanced by their ramshackle narrative and limited production values, and feel like genuine labors of love for everyone involved. Francis Ford Coppola gave the world “The Godfather”, “Apocalypse Now” and “The Conversation”. However, he didn’t give us Rudy Ray Moore yelling out “BITCH, ARE YOU FOR REAL!?”

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