A TOAST TO DOLEMITE (1975)

April 26, 2016

Dolemite #1

“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.

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Dolemite opens the film in prison, having been framed for possession of drugs and stolen furs by local Los Angeles gangster Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, also the director). The madam of the local brothel, Queen Bee (Lady Reed, Moore’s protege and tour partner), advocates on Dolemite’s behalf, and the warden lets him free  if he will help take down the increasingly powerful Green. Dolemite agrees, and he’s loosed back into the world — an improbably pudgy dynamo equally adept with a karate chop as a caress. He immediately sets on bringing down Green – by forcibly taking back his old night club and turning it into a ribald revue of black entertainers (headlined by himself, of course). He is well prepared for an attack by Green’s gang because his loyal army of prostitutes have been taking martial arts lessons (hence the poster calling them “an all girl army of kung fu killers”). There is no way the mythical Dolemite isn’t coming out on top (in more ways than one).

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The movie is a showcase for Moore’s unpredictable wordplay (“I don’t wear no cotton drawers” was my senior quote for my high school yearbook), but the directorial duties were handed off to Martin, who had little interest in the production. It was his directorial debut, but as one of the more established actors, he felt the feature was below him, and didn’t put much effort into composing or choreographing images (hence the proliferation of boom mics on-screen in the theatrical release). It was a real amateur, independent production, and it was almost everyone’s first job, all the way from the writer,  director and DP (Nicholas von Sternberg, Josef’s son, who was just out of college) to the makeup artist (Marie Carter). The film was a testing ground, and it can lead to scenes of stilted airlessness as well as inspired lunacy, set against fascinating Los Angeles locations (it is all parking lots, funeral homes, dingy apartments).The majority of the cast were non-professionals, many clearly uncomfortable on screen. But Moore was a born entertainer.

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Rudy Ray Moore is an ungainly screen presence, his body a soft plush toy. 48-years-old at the time of shooting, he walks tentatively, as if he had knee trouble. His hilariously unconvincing kung-fu battles are as distractingly edited as a late-stage Steven Seagal vehicle. But this isn’t supposed to be a well-oiled narrative machine. It’s a movie “toast”, sending up contemporary action movies (blaxploitation and otherwise) in a series of escalating absurdities that Moore presides over as MC. As unimposing as Moore’s athleticism was, his voice had retained its mischievous power. It was a booming instrument that Moore could slide up and down the scale, speeding up the tempo as he closed in on a punchline. In the final nightclub sequence, there is a taste of his famous “Signifying Monkey” toast, in which a clever simian continually outsmarts the physically superior lion in a competition of deviant one-upsmanship too crass to quote here (the lyrics are over here).

Viewing it for the first time since I was a dumb teen,  Dolemite retains its ability to elicit shock-laughs from Moore’s absurdist runs (“When I see a ghost, I cut the MFer”), and the clarity of the Blu-ray brings out heretofore blurry details in the Los Angeles backgrounds, like the odd beauty of a Ralph’s grocery store sign above an empty parking lot.   The movie was (and remains) critically derided, but it was a hit among black audiences, making $12 million according to Jet Magazine. In 2000, Moore told Vibe magazine that  “Black actors have always had to do roles that were unfavorable to us as a people. So when I came along, I picked a satire that we could enjoy ourselves — not be kicked in the ass. I reversed it. And because Dolemite was so hard-hitting, it worked. People lined the streets to see it.”

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