Craig Brewer’s Rudy Ray Moore biopic for Netflix, My Name is Dolemite, is scoring star Eddie Murphy some of the best reviews of his career, for his flamboyant performance as the Chitlin Circuit icon and groundbreaking hero of 1970s black independent film.
But who was Rudy Ray Moore? Although heralded as the king of the party records and a pioneering figure whose rhythmic, rhyming, raunchy and sexually charged routines helped lay the groundwork for hip hop, Moore’s primary legacy (beyond inspiring a rapturously received Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle, of course), is a series of low-budget B-movies that combined sex, kink, violence, racial conflict, profanity, music, dance, elaborate wordplay, African-American folk traditions and comedy to create something wholly original.
Moore’s 1970s heyday lasted a mere four years and five films, but all of his vehicles contributed something essential and insane to his oeuvre. All are available on Brown Sugar, the streaming service dedicated to African-American films, so if My Name Is Dolemite has you curious about the magical Ed Wood of blaxploitation, here’s a brief guide to the man, the myth and the movies.
Dressed like a pimp on Easter Sunday, with a wardrobe full of capes, floppy hats and outsized bow-ties, Moore — who was already deep into his mid-40s when he broke into movies — made a spectacular if unlikely debut as a leading man in the surprise 1975 hit Dolemite. The cult classic built on Moore’s pioneering work as a nightclub performer, proto-rapper and party record superstar by casting him as a pimp and urban folk hero, let out of prison early so that he can take down rival Willie Green (D’Urville Martin, who also directed) and a corrupt mayor with the help of loyal sidekick Queen Bee (Lady Reed) and her arsenal of karate-chopping ladies of the night.
Dolemite combined the familiar, tawdrily commercial elements of blaxploitation in such bizarre and oddly brilliant ways that it felt like Moore was making up his own amazing mini-sub-genre as he went along. In a sense, that’s just what Moore was doing the whole time: Moore was a one-man genre whose defining feature might just have been a bold disregard for the strictures and limitations of genres, even those as free and uninhibited as blaxploitation.
Monkey Hustle (1976)
Monkey Hustle is an anomaly in Moore’s filmography: a film of genuine quality, directed by Arthur Marks, a filmmaker with talent and experience, with impressive credits like Detroit 9000 (which Quentin Tarantino re-released) and the pilot for Perry Mason to his name, and starring a legitimately great actor in Yaphet Kotto, who is hilarious and larger than life as film flam man Daddy Foxx.
Thankfully the film’s professionalism didn’t corrupt, or even extend to Moore, who is his unabashedly, exquisitely amateurish self as Goldie, a big-hearted Chicago hustler who dresses like a gold-obsessed 1960s Batman villain. Though prominently billed as a co-lead, Moore has more of a glorified cameo, but he’s still enormous fun in a loose and lively neighborhood comedy that’s light on plot and heavy on funky good times.
The Human Tornado (1976)
Dolemite was audacious even by blaxploitation standards, a freak hit that ended by promising a sequel. Moore made good a year later with The Human Tornado, a follow-up that took everything that was outrageous and distinctive about the original and ratcheted it up to surreal levels of dizzy self-parody.
The Human Tornado finds its protagonist intermittently breaking into rhyming verse in addition to indulging his famous propensity to colorfully curse. A rollicking riot of sexed-up B-movie craziness (at one point Moore fucks a woman so good his powerful thrusts destroy her house), its kooky climax speeds up the action for comic effect, intentionally muddying the dubbing for a unique action set-piece that’s a wacky combination of Enter The Dragon, Kentucky Fried Movie, What’s Up Tiger Lily? and The Benny Hill Show while remaining 100 percent Rudy Ray Moore.
Petey Wheatstraw The Devil’s Son in Law (1978)
How do you top yourself when you’ve made two of the nuttiest blaxploitation movies of all time? If you’re Moore, you delve boldly into the worlds of black folklore and the supernatural for 1978’s Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law.
Yet another nightclub musical drawing on archetypes from black folklore, this one features the titular figure (Moore), a kung-fu fighting, joke-telling force of nature who tangles with the devil, the devil’s demonically unattractive daughter and rival comedians Leroy & Skillet, playing evil versions of themselves.
As a leading man, Moore kept raising the bar for cult craziness until his career ended on a vehicle so crazed even Moore couldn’t follow it with something even wilder…
The Avenging Disco Godfather (1979)
With the ghoulish waking nightmare of an anti-PCP disco musical, The Avenging Disco Godfather, Moore hopped onboard the Saturday Night Fever/disco bandwagon shortly before its wheels fell off and it lurched into a ditch.
But releasing a disco musical a few months after Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition Night served as the high-water mark of anti-disco backlash represents only one of several surreal miscalculations. Moore also had the poor judgment to make his hysterical anti-dope message movie about PCP (aka Wack, aka Angel Dust-ah, aka The Sherm that’ll put a dip in your hip and a glide in your stride), that least understood and most hilariously over-dramatized of street drugs. Avenging Disco Godfather leans so hard into anti-drug hysteria that it borders on Grand Guignol horror.
Most disastrously, Avenging Disco Godfather is rated PG and aimed at a family audience, so Moore can’t do what he does best: swear. Moore without cuss words is like Superman in a soothing Kryptonite bath. If Rudy Ray Moore isn’t calling some insecure, pepper-gut, no business having motherfucker out on their shortcomings at a deafening volume, is he really Rudy Ray Moore at all, or just a cleaned-up simulacrum?
Avenging Disco Godfather tried to tame Moore for the squares, but working within more restrictive perimeters, he still created something as viscerally disturbing and unhinged as any of his hard R-rated vehicles. Godfather might have killed Moore’s career as a leading man, but it did so in a characteristically brazen and unforgettable way.