Blu-ray Review: The Wild World of DOLEMITE!

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Classic Blaxploitation romp DOLEMITE comes to Blu-ray.

Though there are a few pre-cursors (including two parts of the ‘Tibbs trilogy,’ as well as Ossie Davis’ fantastic Cotten Comes to Harlem), Blaxploitation was largely launched by the release of two iconic films in 1971, SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG and SHAFT. The release and popularity of these two films works launch a massive series of films of nearly all genres in their wake. While the genre remains problematic in some regards, it cannot be denied that it was one of the first places where audiences were exposed to black leads, and, even more important, black heroes. Blaxploitation also was a place where tense racial relations of the time could be playfully examined. The genre birthed many great talents who otherwise may never have been given breaks, including writers, producers, and directors; for that alone, Blaxploitation must never be completely written off. 

By 1975, when the Blaxploitation movement was at its peak, a new star was about to be born. That stars name was Dolemite and you’re damn sure that “fucking up motherfuckers was [his] game.” Before we get to the film, however, Dolemite himself, Rudy Ray Moore, deserves a proper introduction. Born in Arkansas, Moore became a sort of transient figure, moving from city to city in order to peddle his wares. Moore was a gifted personality, a jack of all trades and a born entertainer that could adapt to whatever environment he was in and find a way to prosper. In 1950, at the age of 23, Moore enlisted in the Army. It was here that his interest in comedy and singing took shape, as he would perform for his fellow soldiers. After Moore’s service ended he found himself once again bouncing around from city to city, until fate brought him to Los Angeles.

Dolemite is Born

“I first heard of Dolemite from a Wino,” Moore happily professed in countless interviews over his life. The story goes that a Wino named Rico would stumble into the record store that Moore was working in a perform a ‘toast,’ for enough money to get his next fix. It was during one of these toasts that Rico played up the Dolemite character, and when Moore saw how popular it was amongst the crowd, he knew it had to be his. As Moore would tell you, if a Wino can make people laugh with this material, just imagine what a trained entertainer like himself could? 

Moore soon after expanded Rico’s Dolemite into a fully fleshed out routine and began recording comedy albums in order to bring it to the masses. When the first record, Eat Out More Often, proved far too salacious for mainstream promotion, Moore literally took it to the streets. With a box full of records in his trunk, Moore would drive from city to city and hand out records to folks in the inner cities and promote his live performances. The task paid off, Eat Out More Often spent four consecutive weeks on the Billboard magazine charts for soul, reaching its high mark at the 24th spot. His follow up, This Pussy Belongs to Me (released only a few weeks after Eat Out first charted), simultaneously charted at the 49th spot, which made Moore the first artist to have two records charting at the same time for soul. 

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Dolemite is back on the scene!

The logical step for Moore, then, was to turn his character into a motion picture. With a clear vested interest in “black” properties sweeping the industry and the success of Moore’s records behind it, surely Dolemite was just the thing audiences would be quick to respond to. Well, Moore was right but it wasn’t so easy getting there. The most impressive aspect of DOLEMITE — and this is something often overlooked when people criticize Blaxploitation on its exploitative merits —, is that it represents a pure look at independent black cinema. Not only did Moore fund the film himself, he hired a black writer and black director to turn the idea into a reality. And, he did all of this in a time when Hollywood was even more cautious about letting people of color into high ranking above the line roles (although we still have a long way to go). DOLEMITE, love it or hate it, is an important work in the history of black cinema.

DOLEMITE centers on its titular character, the self-professed ‘baddest’ pimp in town, as he is enlisted by the Mayor to take down local police corruption. In doing so, Dolemite simultaneously seeks revenge on a man named Willie Green (D’Urville Martin) who set him up to be arrested in order to steal away his nightclub. With a little help from his stable of Kung-Fu fighting prostitutes, Dolemite sets off to ‘fuck up some motherfuckers,’ and fuck up some motherfuckers he does. 

Judged on its technical merits, it would be naive to claim that DOLEMITE doesn’t have its problems. Moore hired D’Urville Martin to both director the film, as well as take a role as the baddie, Willie Green; and, on paper, this seemed like a good move. After all, Martin was a bonafide star in the blaxploitation circuit, having roles in films like HAMMER, BLACK CEASAR, HELL UP IN HARLEM, SHEBA, BABY and more. Word has it that Martin only took the role for the chance to direct, but as a director he left a lot to be desired. Speaking of his work, both Moore and screenwriter Jerry Jones spoke politely but skeptically in interviews, stating that Martin’s disinterest in the material — going as far as to say that the film wouldn’t amount to anything on set — can be seen on screen. 

Despite the lack of directorial flare, DOLEMITE does look rather pleasing — a fact highlighted in the stunning 2K scan on Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release. With many scenes set in the old, legendary Dunbar hotel — in which Moore was sole occupant at the time — the film benefits from having a higher production value than the 100K budget could offer. In addition, first time cinematographer Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (who would go on to shoot films like Tourist Trap and JOYSTICKS) does a fine job, his work largely making up for Martin’s shortcomings. 

VinSyn’s Blu-ray includes both cuts of the film, the originally intended 1.85:1 presentation and the full frame ‘boom mic’ version that famously ended up finding its way onto home video presentations. Because of this latter fact, the film has been unfairly panned by critics (and even fans) as being even more incompetently produced than it is. The boom shots were always going to be cropped out, so it was not for complete lack of talent that they were included. Still, watching the full frame cut, admittedly, does add a good deal of entertainment value and makes for a fun group viewing.

The real heart of the film, however, lies in Moore. Moore is not half the actor as some of his contemporaries but what he lacks in technics, he makes up for in pure bravado. Moore is a heightened and campy Blaxploitation lead, one that raps his way through the script and delivers some of the best lines in all of Blaxploitation. Personal favorites include, “That rat-soup-eatin’, insecure honky motherfucker!,” “You no-business, born-insecure, junkyard motherfucker!,” “I’m gonna let ’em know that Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!,” and the best: “Man, move over and let me pass ‘fore they have be to pullin’ these Hush Puppies out your motherfuckin’ ass!” Moore had a way of raising his voice in the final few words of his sentences in a iconic manner. It’s a very poetic performance and one that has aged particularly well. What Moore does not do well is fake fight. Any time the script calls for Dolemite to flex his muscles, Moore’s inexperience is quite obvious, but this only adds to the film’s overall charm.

Strange enough, Moore doesn’t emerge as the sole hero of the film. In the final act, another strong black male — an FBI agent (played by the screenwriter Jerry Jones) tasked to undermine police corruption and who has enlisted Dolomite’s help — reveals himself as virile (if not more) than Dolemite. This was a point of contention for Moore, who argued with Jones about this fact during the writing process, but ultimately Moore’s willingness to share the spotlight says a lot about his character — even if he wasn’t over the moon about it. 

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The other actors (most of whom were unprofessional, a fact that hardly goes unnoticed) do as good a job as they can, but they have their limitations. The exception to this rule is Lady Reed — a friend who Moore took under his wing in order to help make a star —, who shines in her own unique way as Queen Bee, Dolemite’s confidante and right-hand woman. John Kerry stars as the lead crooked cop and perfectly captures the sliminess needed for the role to work. Finally, Martin is notably checked out a bit but still does deliver a fine performance as Dolemite’s adversary, Willie Green. 

In today’s political climate DOLEMITE rings as particularly vibrant. Its pure fantasy — a pimp single handily taking down police corruption and cleaning up his city — but it’s the kind of fantasy that you can see really resonating with its disenfranchised target audience; hell its the kind of fantasy that still excites us. That is not to say that there aren’t a ton of politically incorrect moments — of course there there are — but the film still has a powerful core to it, and there is something still refreshing about seeing Dolemite taking down the racist cops that make it their mission to destroy him. 

Dolemite Got Himself Some New Digs 

DOLEMITE is a cult classic and certainly not one that has been grossly under-seen. It has been subjected to numerous home video releases prior to Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray here, but never has it looked so good. This Blu-ray, importantly, marks the first ever release of the film in its intended aspect ratio, returning some much-needed dignity to Moore’s legacy. The presentation is natural, retaining its film grain, and the colors beautifully pop off the screen — and what a colorful film it is. On top of the presentation, the disc is loaded with a few much-appreciated extra features. The best of the bunch is the 24-minute featurette, I, Dolemite, which tells the enthralling story of Rudy Ray Moore though archival and new interviews with Rudy Ray Moore, Jerry Jones, Lady Reed, John Kerry, Nick Von Sternberg, and Moore-biographer Mark Murray. This piece is a must-see for any fans of the film and will sure to offer at least one tidbit that wasn’t known prior. Lady Reed Uncut features 24 minutes of interview footage shot with the charming actress covering all things DOLEMITE. Personally, I fell in love with this featurette, as Reed emerges as an incredibly charming, honest, sweet, and sassy woman. Her stories — with a little help from Moore (sitting just out of screen) — offer an intimate look at her relationship with Moore. Biographer Mark Murray offers a commentary track that is insightful but feels a tad too much from script. It’s worth a listen but does suffer a bit to his delivering of information. It would most definitely had benefited from having a moderator in stow. Finally, there is a brief, albeit fun, segment that looks at various locations in the film and how they have changed over the years (or in some cases, haven’t changed all that much). 

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The release of DOLEMITE marks the start of a series of titles Vinegar Syndrome are releasing from the late, great Rudy Moore. Following releases will include HUMAN TORNADO, the follow-up Dolemite picture, as well as his horror-comedy PETEY WHEATSRAW, and DISCO GODFATHER. Vinegar Syndrome have really offered up an excellent release, likely one of the best of the year. Despite their continued popularity, Blaxploitation films haven’t been subject to as much attention as they should in the boutique home video market — although the folks at Arrow have also released a few great pieces. With hopes, DOLEMITE will signal a boost of attention and care for this fascinating, important, and entertaining era of filmmaking. 

Dolomite is back, long live DOLEMITE!

DOLEMITE will be released on April 26th by Vinegar Syndrome