THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The “Blaxploitation” movies of the 1970's are viewed in a radically different manner now than they were then. At the time, these pictures were seen as disreputable in many (snooty) circles because they were low-budget affairs that made no pretense of being art. Others rather shallowly viewed them as vehicles designed simply to cater to African-American audiences. Looking back, we now realize that they put black actors on the screen in powerful roles at a time when Hollywood wasn't doing a whole lot of that. Blaxploitation films made African-Americans the heroes, rather than the sidekicks or the comic relief. There's real cultural and social value to them for that reason. Dolemite certainly ranks among the most influential, not only cinematically, but also musically, as a number of rap stars have referenced the movie in their work. It is now available in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack from Vinegar Syndrome.
Rudy Ray Moore plays the title character, a pimp who gets pardoned and sprung from prison in order to help take down local gangster Willie Green (played by the film's director, D'Urville Martin). Aside from freedom, there's a personal reason he agrees to go after the criminal: Green set Dolemite up on a phony drug charge so that could steal his club, The Total Experience. Helping our unlikely hero is his madam friend Queen Bee (played by Lady Reed) and their gang of “girls,” who are all experts in kung fu, among other things.
By every conventional measure, Dolemite is terrible. There isn't a coherent plot; it keeps shifting directions with no real rhyme or reason. The acting is stiff. The editing is choppy. The sound is often poorly synced. There are shots where you can see boom microphones or shadows of crew members. One extra inadvertently looks directly into the camera. Quite frankly, it's a huge mess on an aesthetic level.
And yet, there are so many individual moments of awesomeness that it doesn't matter. Dolemite is packed with funny lines of dialogue and bits of wonderful weirdness. For example, did you know Dolemite is so badass that he can kick a person and miss by several inches, but they still go down? He's got a way with words, too. Many of his quotes are pure gold. For example, upon his release from prison, he says, I'm gonna let 'em know that Dolemite is back on the scene! I'm gonna let 'em know that Dolemite is my name, and f***ing up motherf***ers is my game! And who can resist supporting characters like the Creeper (a.k.a. the “Hamburger Pimp”), a local junkie who goes around begging for money and free food? Those are just a few of the movie's outlandish strong points.
For whatever it lacks formally, Dolemite is a fun, fascinating piece of cultural history. There's even a political element to it, as the story addresses themes of inner city crime and institutional racism. And at the center of it all is Rudy Ray Moore, a wildly charismatic force of nature who walks through the movie confidently, somehow making it all work. He knows that he is the baddest mofo in town.
Thanks to a 2k scan from a newly discovered 35mm negative, the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray looks good, but thankfully not too good. The film grain, scratches, and reel change markers add to the old-school grindhouse appeal. There are quite a few bonus features, including an unmatted full-frame “boom mic” version that allows you to see even more of the sound equipment intruding upon the image. A commentary track from Rudy Ray Moore biographer Mark Jason Murray provides insight into the film's making and relevance.
The 23-minute documentary “I, Dolemite” looks at the film's origins and making. Among the juiciest tidbits is that Moore didn't think director D'Urville Martin was trying very hard – probably because, by all accounts, he wasn't. The star was deeply unhappy with what he saw as an artless production, and he didn't like the finished product upon viewing it. (Wildly positive audience reaction changed his mind.) Also here is a piece on Lady Reed, who was discovered and mentored by Moore, plus a two-minute short showing some of the movie's locations as they appear today. A couple of theatrical trailers round things out.
For more information on this title, please visit the Vinegar Syndrome website.
Dolemite is rated R for violence, language, and sexuality/nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.
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