Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
For the recent Blu-ray release of "Dolemite," two of our exploitation film experts, Simon Abrams and Odie Henderson, had an extensive conversation about the Rudy Ray Moore classic from 1975. Get your copy of "Dolemite" here.
Simon Abrams: When I think about "Dolemite," I think about the way Mario Van Peebles presents father/"Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song" director Melvin Van Peebles in Melvin's surprisingly decent 2003 biopic "Baadassss!" In that film, Mario suggests that his dad was wilier, more artistic, and more responsible than the Blaxploitation filmmakers that followed him. His film didn't quite fit that mold, since his movie was about an African-American hero fighting against the system without resorting to stereotypical behavior.
The same cannot be said about "Dolemite," comedian Rudy Ray Moore's delirious slice of Blaxploitation heaven. Like the best entries in this disreputable genre, "Dolemite" is a personal work of outsider art. Moore plays Dolemite, a newly-paroled pimp who indirectly protects his community by getting rid of business rival Willie Green ("Dolemite" director and frequent collaborator D'Urville Martin). Dolemite is an irresponsible hero: he makes being a foul-mouthed, uncouth sexist look good whenever he shows off his karate skills, and inexplicably bags as many women as he wants.
I confess, Odie: I used to find Moore's comedy and persona to be inaccessible. I got into his work once I learned how to watch what many have dismissed as a "bad film." I like what Richard Brody said about Ed Wood's movies: they're not good, but he would rather watch them than many other so-called good movies because it comes from a genuine, idiosyncratic place. I think the same is true of "Dolemite," a charmingly filthy, albeit rather amateurish stab at making a macho action-hero persona out of Moore's stand-up sensibility. I see some similarities in that sense between Moore and Tyler Perry since both adapted channeled existing personalities and fixations into their movies. But I like "Dolemite" and can't stand Perry because Moore is comfortable being sleazy. Who else would think to sic an army of karate-chopping prostitutes on a corrupt white mayor (you know his hands aren't clean because he says they are) and his drug-pushing business associates? I like "Dolemite" but not in the way most people like films. (And no, it's not in the "so bad it's good" way either. I hate that condescending mentality).
Odie Henderson: Moore was never inaccessible to me. Before I discovered “Dolemite," I found at my aunt's house a Rudy Ray Moore album called “Eat Out More Often." I thought it was about going to McDonalds, so I wanted to hear it. My older cousin told me Rudy Ray Moore was not for little kids, but I had just seen his PG-rated film, “The Monkey Hu$tle." “He’s rated PG!” Six-year old me whined. “Oh really?” asked my cousin, who then played me the first side of “Eat Out More Often." We were eventually busted by my aunt, who beat our asses, but not before I’d gotten earfuls of life-changing filth. I never recovered from such a glorious corruption.
“Eat Out More Often” gets a shout-out in “Dolemite," when Queen Bee introduces Moore’s most famous poem, “The Signifying Monkey." Despite being a sex machine, a kung-fu master who can disembowel with his bare hands and a 1970’s clotheshorse, the thing that immortalizes Dolemite is his oratory skills. In one scene, a group of guys run up on him, begging him for a recitation. Dolemite obliges, and for that moment, even the movie forgets about its problems. The universe stops so Dolemite can spin his tale. Every ‘hood had its storyteller, and comedians like Moore and Richard Pryor channeled those voices into their routines. In fact, Dolemite’s origins came from the wino on Moore’s block who first spun tales of the character’s preternatural prowess.
People today might see “Dolemite” as offensive and an embarrassment. I disagree, and I’ll explain why later. For now, why do you think Vinegar Syndrome chose to put this out—and on Blu-ray no less? The movie rises below “low-budget," yet it looks better than I’ve ever seen it. Is there a younger fan base I don’t know about?
Simon Abrams: I don't know if "offensive" or "embarrassing" are words I'd use to describe my personal reaction to Dolemite. I suppose I wrote defensively because I wanted a reader who's unfamiliar with "Dolemite" to know what to expect.
To answer your question: I'm not sure if there is a younger audience for Rudy Ray Moore's films, but I think the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome are ensuring that a younger audience can find these movies. They're film preservationists, as pretentious as that sounds, and the types of films they preserve are the kind that you and I love: trash cinema! These movies, at their best, express a personal vision and communicate a sense of style without much knowledge of film grammar, or technical finesse. When you watch a movie like "Dolemite," and you connect with it, it's special. Vinegar Syndrome cultivates and preserves a library of films that are mostly of interest to cult cinema devotees. But they do more than just program cinematic oddities: they make it so that these movies look and sound better than they have in decades so that people can come to their own conclusions.
So how do I love "Dolemite?" Let me count some ways:
- Moore's alternately inspired and ridiculous wardrobe, particularly his cummerbunds, powder-blue leisure suit, pimp derby hat, and overalls
- Moore's swagger. He's not much of an actor, but he is charming as heck, and comfortable in his character's oily skin
- The endearingly plentiful amounts of cussing, violence and nudity. Well, it's true!
- The counter-phobic paranoia that leads Dolemite to take on two of the Blaxploitation genre's biggest threats: drug dealers and corrupt white politicians
There's so much more to love, but I'll pause now to ask you if you think that "Dolemite" is one of Moore's more accessible films? I think so, though I only fell in love with his films after watching "The Human Tornado."
Odie Henderson: Dolemite is a good entry point for those curious about Rudy Ray Moore’s cinematic output. He’s always playing some variation of that character in his films. Plus, it might interest viewers to see that Dolemite’s “rappin’, tappin’ and signifyin’” persona served as a prototype of sorts for any rapper who’s ever rocked a mike. He gets name-checked by Snoop Dogg in “Nothin’ But a G Thang," and Big Daddy Kane hilariously attempted to battle Dolemite on Kane’s “A Taste of Chocolate” album. It all ties together, because the concept of a battle rap emerged from the tradition of talking smack that Dolemite employed for his signifyin’ monkey. All the cussing he drops into his insults may raise eyebrows, but one can’t simply write it off as mere crudity: His method is effective and not just for the lowbrow. Hell, even Dr. Maya Angelou wrote two signifyin’ poems called “The Dozens”!
Dolemite’s anti-drug stance isn’t surprising. Despite “Super Fly”’s cocaine-infused appeal, several Blaxploitation films take a hard line against drugs. For example, Pam Grier’s Coffy is a nurse who vengefully guns down drug dealers at night. Most of Moore’s work would qualify as the “anti-Super Fly," especially "Avenging Disco Godfather." That film’s hellish, surreal hallucination sequences and creepy, unresolved ending made me swear off all substances when I saw it as a kid. That Turner Classic Movies chose "Avenging Disco Godfather," Moore’s weirdest film, to show on its network rather than "Dolemite," shows somebody has a sick sense of humor at that channel.
As for Moore’s acting, he’s no Meryl Streep but his confidence and swagger always carry him over. With that said, I would have loved to have seen his Othello. Moore’s favorite 12-letter profanity would fit seamlessly into all that iambic pentameter.
D’Urville Martin, the film’s director, is the bad guy, while Jerry Jones, the film’s screenwriter, turns out to as big a hero as Dolemite. What did you think of their work? And have you seen the third film in the Dolemite series, “The Return of Dolemite”?
Simon Abrams: I kinda like Martin's performance but Jones is ridiculous!
I had to look up "The Return of Dolemite!" I've never seen it, and am now intrigued. I guess I'd never heard of it because it's never been included in the Dolemite Collection box sets—VHS or DVD—which is the primary way I've come to know the films. I think that indirectly speaks to our generation gap: you knew these movies as films first while I always knew them as cassettes and DVDs. I saw a funny bootleg VHS tape advertising for a martial arts "Shaolin Dolemite" film that I don't think exists ... unless it's just an alternate title for "The Return of Dolemite." These things proliferate, as you know from your time working as a video store clerk. Then again, according to IMDb, Dolemite has a cameo in both the Hughes brothers' "American Pimp" and the Insane Clown Posse's "Big Money Hustlas!" This guy really is everywhere ...
I brought up Melvin Van Peebles earlier because I have a hard time articulating Dolemite's appeal. Exploitation cinema is too glibly championed by cinephiles of my generation who don't have the experience or the presence of mind to contextualize where these films come from. I wanted, with this conversation, to paint a picture for readers who may not even know who Dolemite is, to see him from both of our perspectives. Because too often, criticism of genre films becomes an echo chamber of singular writers' enthusiasm. I think the world of what Vinegar Syndrome is doing: making it possible for people to see the best possible presentation of these films. Our job is to subsequently help audiences decide if they want to see these films. Vinegar Syndrome will release "The Human Tornado" (pre-order your copy here) my favorite of the Dolemite films, this month. I hope we can have another conversation about that one when it comes out. In the meantime: what's your favorite Dolemite movie, Odie?
Odie Henderson: I would stick with the first film as my favorite Dolemite feature. I didn’t see “The Human Tornado” until I was working at the video store you mentioned, but I saw “Dolemite” at the Pix Theater in Jersey City when I was way too young. If I were to pick my favorite Rudy Ray Moore movie, however, I’d have to go with his most ridiculous and least politically correct one, "Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law." A horror-comedy of sorts, this is a film where Moore makes a deal with the Devil to return to Earth so he could avenge his own death at the hands of fellow comedians Leroy and Skillet. Wheatstraw is born as an eight-year-old, upon which time he curses out his horny Dad for “interrupting his sleep” while Wheatstraw was in utero. It only gets raunchier from there.
I can imagine respectable folks out there cringing, and you know what? Let ‘em cringe! I don’t begrudge anyone who’s offended by material like this, but I’ve never stood for anybody telling me I shouldn’t watch or enjoy them. Truth be told, when I was a kid, these were just movies. They weren’t being held up to scrutiny by your generation of cinephiles, who mistakenly look for irony or deep meaning as a way to show they’re “down." These films also weren’t being judged by 2016 standards, because those didn’t exist in 1977.
At the time, my cousins and I felt empowered by Pam Grier, Jim Kelly and Fred Williamson. They fought back and were powerful. We thought Dolemite was just as goofy as our uncle, who told even filthier stories to us when his sisters weren’t around. There was really no downside for us back then. This is why I love these movies without guilt, and why I also appreciate movies like “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka," which parodies the genre, and “Hollywood Shuffle," which brilliantly and hilariously excoriates it.
"Dolemite" was released on Blu-ray by the Vinegar Syndrome on April 26. Join Simon and Odie's conversation and get your copy of "Dolemite" by clicking here.
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