Friday, August 14, 2020

"Dolmedes is My Name": Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee

 Last year, when the world was still young and full of possibility, Eddie Murphy starred in a flashy but unlikely comedy called Dolemite is My Name. Who knew? I’m hardly in the demographic that remembered the real-life Rudy Ray Moore: the film taught me that he was a comedy and rap pioneer who in the 1970s used the persona of a folk hero loved by the Black community to entertain audiences tickled by outrageous language and even more outrageous behavior.

 The part of the film I adored shows Moore, turned down by every major studio, making his own Dolemite movie on his own dime, with a little help from his friends. These include a minor-league Black actor (D’urville Martin) coming aboard on the promise that he can  direct, as well as a gaggle of UCLA film students thrilled to be working on a real-life commercial production. It’s supposed to be a Blaxploitation flick with plenty of sex and kung-fu action: the fact that none of the cast and crew know what they’re doing makes for plenty of laughs. I laughed too: after all, I’ve been there.

  In the early 1970s, during my New World Pictures days, I worked on such vintage Blaxploitation staples as TNT Jackson. And I remember the excitement when my boss Roger Corman’s brother Gene was shooting a local production called Darktown Strutters. It was the talk of the office when a bank robbery scene was staged on the streets of Hollywood. In the interest of saving money (always a high priority in low-budget filmmaking), no rent-a-cops had been engaged to block off the city streets. So when the robbers emerged from the bank and jumped into their waiting get-away car, passersby naturally assumed that this was the real thing.  Other drivers panicked leading to a for-real car crash. Needless to say, the cameras kept on rolling, providing lots of useful action footage. Such is life when filmmaking newbies shoot on a down-&-dirty Roger Corman-type budget.

 A Dolemite-inspired character shows up in one of Spike Lee’s more recent endeavors, the loud and outrageous Chi-Raq (2015). Here Lee, in his usual eclectic fashion, addresses the issue of Black-on-Black street crime by taking a page from Aristophanes’ ancient Greek comedy, Lysistrata. In Aristophanes’ audacious 5th century BC play, women put a stop to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex until the bloodshed ends. Lee borrows something of the Greek comic master’s plot as well as his audacious spirit: his tale of modern-day Chicago (known by some as Chi-Raq in recognition of its bloody streets) includes a spate of bawdy talk, unlikely musical interludes, and high-decibel rap battles. Our guide through this netherworld is the ultra-cool Samuel L. Jackson as Dolmedes, who functions as the story’s narrator or (in the ancient Greek sense) chorus. Like the rest of the characters, he tends to speak in rhyme, and his language is hardly PG-13.

 Lee, never shy about taking on artistic challenges, balances the tomfoolery with moments of genuine poignancy, encompassing the fate of children killed by stray bullets in the Chicago streets. (Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson nicely take on the role of bereaved mothers.) There’s also (surprising in a film by Lee) a good-guy white Catholic priest played by John Cusack. The wildly disparate elements of the story, and its radical tonal shifts, hardly help viewers like me. I grant I’m not the target audience, but I’m not sure just who is. It’s gutsy to use an ancient comedy to address a contemporary problem, but Lee’s experiment can be described by a classical Greek word: Chaos.


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