Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

One of the first films I watched in the new year was one I’d missed out on at the end of last year, though I’d heard positive things. I don’t daresay it will get Eddie Murphy an Oscar acting nomination, and it is deserving of its fine word of mouth, one of the new tranche of prestige Netflix projects that had some limited cinematic distribution too. I shall probably get back to my themed weeks again starting next week.

Eddie Murphy, it is clear from this movie, can definitely act, and when he puts his mind to it he’s surely among the better performers in Hollywood even now. This in particular is a lovely film because it puts on screen so many excellent and capable Black character actors, in the service of telling a story that’s pure American Dream in a way: the idea that with enough application of willpower and can-do attitude, you can achieve your dreams, especially when those dreams are putting out raunchy comedy records and getting into the movies (which one could imagine would be appealing to Murphy, given his own history). He plays Rudy Ray Moore, a struggling musician and variety performer who gained some localised fame with a streetwise character called Dolemite, whom he then put on the big screen in a blaxploitation film of that name in 1975. This, then, is a fairly mainstream rendering of the man/the myth which hits all the requisite biopic notes (the rise and fall and rise sort of narrative) but with grace and humour, and guided by that stellar performance of Murphy’s, meaning it’s never dull. It also shows that for all Moore’s raunchy attitude on stage, he was reflective and thoughtful about the material itself and wasn’t just interested in exploiting people for his own personal success, which as a moral doesn’t hurt either.

Dolemite Is My Name film posterCREDITS
Director Craig Brewer; Writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski; Cinematographer Eric Steelberg; Starring Eddie Murphy, Tituss Burgess, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Keegan-Michael Key; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 1 January 2020.

Foxy Brown (1974)

I’m by no means an expert on the so-called ‘blaxploitation’ genre, but this particular title seems to get a lot of play in popular culture. Quentin Tarantino, after all, sampled the title character’s name — not to mention its actress, Pam Grier — for his own Jackie Brown, and generally Foxy is considered an icon of embattled black femininity striking back at an unjust system. Yet for all the rhetoric around it, the film itself is a rather sleazy little piece of low-budget exploitation cinema, as is perhaps hardly surprising.

Undeniably, its saving grace is its star, the luminescent Pam Grier. Even as the minor characters shuffle around in polyester, delivering cardboard dialogue on under-furnished sets, Grier is wonderful to watch and has an ease and charisma that rather shows up the lack of polish elsewhere. She is avenging her boyfriend, a federal agent slain by members of a drug syndicate/brothel headed up by the creepy “Miss Katherine”. It turns out the boyfriend was turned in by Foxy’s no-good drug addicted brother (Antonio Fargas, a jittery livewire, better known for his turn as a pimp in the TV show Starsky & Hutch), just one more weak man in a film filled with them.

Yet it’s hardly any kind of feminist statement, and I would be wary of making such claims. In order to infiltrate the drug ring and take her revenge, Foxy goes undercover as a prostitute and is seen in various stages of undress. Still, if the camera at times seems to leer at her, Grier sends back a pretty grim visage when she needs to, and it’s clear that her revenge will always come even when she finds herself in peril — of which there’s plenty, and some of it rather nasty.

That all said, for what is avowedly exploitation filmmaking, it leaves less of a nasty aftertaste than something like the recent Kick-Ass 2. There’s also a lot more interest to the moral quandaries that the characters deal with, especially in the dynamic between Foxy and her brother, even if ultimately there are some strong elements of stereotyping. Yet the trump card of Foxy Brown, moreso even than many other films in this genre, is the propulsive brass-led soundtrack from Willy Hutch. When it drops in — as it does periodically, breaking up some longueurs — so many other caveats and complaints can more easily be forgotten. Foxy Brown may not be a classic, but it certainly has its pleasures.

Foxy Brown film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jack Hill; Cinematographer Brick Marquard; Starring Pam Grier, Antonio Fargas; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Thursday 5 September 2013.