The Man Who Would Be Dolemite
Exploring the wonders of the Rudy Ray Moore Cinematic Universe
“From the first to the last, I give ’em the blast so fast that their life is passed before they ass has even hit the grass!" —Rudy Ray Moore, from the voiceover to the Dolemite trailer
"What you call dirty words, I call ghetto expression." —Rudy Ray Moore
Rudy Ray Moore spent his whole life entertaining people. An underground comedian in South Central Los Angeles since the mid-1950s, this self-proclaimed “King of the Party Records” blended funk music with raunchy street rhymes in his act, basically inventing hip hop. But it was with the creation of his larger-than-life alter-ego Dolemite — a trash-talking, slick-rhyming, kung fu-fighting trickster pimp first introduced on Moore’s live comedy albums, then immortalized in the eponymous 1975 movie — that Moore earned his stripes as a bona fide pop-culture pioneer. An ineptly made vanity production, Dolemite was a surprise smash hit and spawned several berserk follow-ups, all taking place in a bizarre, self-contained universe of red-velvet nightclubs and trashy apartments where the standard-issue blaxploitation diet of sex, violence and profanity was infused with semi-autobiography, outré horror elements, and some outrageously Freudian moments of self-revelation.
Starting off his showbiz career in his teens, Moore was a singer and dancer in what were known as “black-and-tan” clubs: African American bars that offered a revue of showgirls, tap dancing, raunchy comedians, sexy shake dancers and R&B bands, a variety-show format that would prove to be a powerful influence on the future auteur’s films. Moore had served with an entertainment unit in the military, doing R&B covers of country songs interspersed with jokes. Returning Stateside from Germany, Moore eventually settled in Los Angeles and cut a few jump blues and R&B singles in the early days of rock and roll, but when his music career stalled, comedy came to be his focus.
While working at the Los Angeles record store Dolphin’s of Hollywood, Moore encountered a regular named Rico who, for a few bucks, would recite tall tales about a pimp/loverman named Dolemite in sing-song rhyme. One night Moore invited Rico over to his apartment, plied him with some reefer and wine, and got him to do the Dolemite routine into a cassette recorder, which Moore then finessed and worked into his stand-up act.
The Dolemite routine was featured on Moore’s first hit comedy album, 1970’s Eat Out More Often, a blend of dirty jokes and funk groove overdubs that became a surprise hit on the Billboard soul charts. Several more albums followed, all self-distributed on the “Comedians, Inc.” label. Due to their X-rated material and sleazy cover art, Moore’s records were all mostly sold under the counter, delivered to the customer in a plain brown wrapper.
Moore tore open the envelope that dirty comedians like Redd Foxx had first pushed: where Foxx camouflaged his smut behind shameless double entendres, Moore loaded his skits with profanity and earthy sex talk, delivered in his trademark booming voice. A quick and funny example of Moore’s signature oratory can be heard in his popular “Piccolo Player” skit:
Moore maintained a nine-room apartment in the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue in South Central, which in its heyday had been a cultural hub for the African American community. In the era of segregation the Dunbar was the fancy hotel where Black musicians from travelling jazz orchestras would stay, hosting everyone from Duke Ellington to Paul Robeson to Ella Fitzgerald, and it also served as a gathering place for Black leaders and writers of the 1920s and ’30s. Ironically, as the desegregation of Los Angeles began in the 1950s the Dunbar’s importance diminished, and by the 1970s it had become a derelict apartment building in a bad neighbourhood. Moore recorded most of his party records in his Dunbar apartment, inviting friends over for drinks and laughs. When Moore decided to funnel all of his comedy earnings ($100,000, give or take) into financing Dolemite’s big-screen debut in 1975, the Dunbar served as his own personal Cinecittà, with garish erotic paintings on black velvet and fake wood panelling transforming the rooms into bordellos and police stations.
Helmed by untested director D’Urville Martin — a frequent player in the action movies of blaxploitation star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson — Dolemite opens as Moore’s unlikely sex god/badass is sprung from jail and offered a pardon if he will assist the police in bringing down the criminal empire of his dastardly rival (played by the film's director Martin), which is now centred on Dolemite’s old club/bordello The Total Experience. With the help of his old friend, the club’s madam Queen Bee (Lady Reed), and her army of hookers who have helpfully trained in the deadly arts of kung fu (a brazen attempt to cash in on the then-current grindhouse blend of Blaxploitation and martial arts; cf. Afroed karate champ Jim Kelly in Enter the Dragon and Black Belt Jones), Dolemite sets out on his mission of vengeance.
One of the ultimate demonstrations that plot is naught and Style is all, Dolemite derives its unlikely cinematic richness from a host of fringe details, from Lady Reed’s immortal declaration of happiness in the opening scene (watch for it!), to fun behind-the-scenes trivia (the film’s cinematographer was Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the great director Josef von Sternberg), to the truly strange supporting performances from the many non-professional actors, most notably Vainus Rackstraw as the Creeper, a.k.a. the Hamburger Pimp (“Yeah, I'm so bad, I kick my own ass twice a day!”). But soaring above it all is Moore, who does not allow his considerable middle-aged paunch to deter him from embodying the kung fu-kicking, word-twisting, woman-pleasuring loverman with supreme confidence.
Moore initially released Dolemite himself, booking a four-wall engagement in Indianapolis that drew enthusiastic crowds for its midnight shows and generated some interest from Hollywood distributors. Turned down by American International Pictures before getting picked up by another low-budget B-picture sausage factory, Dimension Pictures (not to be confused with Dimension Films, the “mini-major” studio owned by The Weinstein Company), Dolemite was a big hit on the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, grossing a spectacular $12 million against its $100,000 budget. A sequel was inevitable.
The Human Tornado is that rare sequel that may be marginally better than the original masterpiece. Shot on five times the budget of Dolemite ($500,000), it is more professionally made, with better supporting actors (including a young and bald Ernie Hudson) and less threadbare production values, but it is basically a flashier, less amateurish remake of Dolemite with some additional exploitation elements that somehow got missed last time (interracial sex, sleazy fantasy dream sequences, a torture chamber, racist southern cops). But it is still gloriously sloppy and low-rent, once again filmed almost entirely at the Dunbar, with a lot of the budget likely spent on optical effects to speed up Moore’s kung fu-fighting to Benny Hill velocity — which not only fails to disguise the star’s non-existent martial-arts skills but makes the film more self-consciously comical to boot.
Tornado also offers the strongest hints that Moore's aggressively heterosexual Dolemite persona was in itself somewhat of an act, something not picked up on by audiences in Moore's lifetime but was alleged in a 2012 documentary interview with Moore's long-time manager Donald Randall, claiming Moore was secretly bisexual in his very private life. An outlandish fantasy sequence in Tornado features a bevy of sexy black musclemen climbing out of a toybox for the delectation of an aroused white woman (and presumably the audience), and one of the damsels in distress Dolemite rescues (who is tortured by a snake by her captors) is in fact played by transgender actress and activist Lady Java.
Moore followed up The Human Tornado by taking an acting role opposite Yaphet Kotto in the more conventional 1976 blaxploitation comedy The Monkey Hustle for AIP (the studio had since fired the original executive who let Dolemite get away).
In 1977, Moore adapted another one of his popular nightclub routines for his next starring vehicle, Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law — although beyond some supernatural elements added to the formula, there is not much separating this new character (whom Moore derived from an old minstrel-show routine) from his predecessor Dolemite.
After a tasteless introduction showing Petey’s mother giving birth first to a watermelon, then to a sassy, diaper-wearing six-year-old boy, we see young Petey grow under the tutelage of a mentor who teaches him self-reliance and the ways of kung fu. Striking out to follow his dreams of becoming (what else?) a nightclub comedian, Petey takes the entertainment world by storm, until his success gets him mowed down (along with an entire funeral party) by a pair of rival comedians in hock to the mafia. As he lays dying, Petey is visited by a mysterious stranger named "Lou Cipher" (Moore beat Alan Parker’s Angel Heart to this transparent pseudonym for Old Nick by a decade), who offers Petey a chance to stay alive, get revenge and reap great rewards — on the condition that he marry the Devil’s supremely ugly daughter and give him a son. Naturally, the trickster Petey accepts the deal, returns to Earth with a magical pimp cane and immediately tries to figure out how to weasel out of his soul-selling gambit. (Spoiler: the Devil wins.)
Petey Wheatstraw was not nearly the success the Dolemite pictures had been; by this point, in fact, the entire blaxploitation market had gone into terminal decline, as mass-appeal blockbusters cut into profits of low-budget action pictures and political-pressure groups like the NAACP decried the negative portrayals of Black characters in the films.
Moore’s film career finally derailed with the failure of Disco Godfather (a.k.a. The Avenging Disco Godfather), a defanged action comedy burdened with a PG rating and a preachy anti-drug plot — two big miscalculations the producers made in an attempt to expand Moore’s audience while still appealing to his devoted fans.
Besides being a tepid Rudy Ray Moore outing (apart from some vintage RRM weirdness in the horror movie-style drug-trip dream sequences), Disco Godfather was also a victim of bad timing: it was released in September 1979, right in the middle of an anti-disco backlash. Moore’s precarious self-financing system, where the last hit pays for the next film, was too vulnerable to survive a flop, and with the death rattle of the blaxploitation era and the subsequent bankruptcy of his distributor Dimension, Moore found himself back at square one (although he was able to win back the rights to the films themselves).
Dolemite’s reputation as one of the best bad movies ever made was inadvertently amplified in the 1980s by the film’s home video distributor Xenon Pictures, which released it on VHS (and later DVD) in an “open matte” format, revealing the tops and bottoms of the image that would have been cut off in a theatrical exhibition and drawing the viewer’s attention to the errant boom mics and camera crew throughout the film — which, of course, only made the film more entertaining and widened the film’s overall appeal as a stoner classic.
The mass-market explosion of rap music in the ’90s gave Dolemite and Rudy Ray Moore new relevance. The blaxploitation genre and the funk and R&B soundtracks these films produced were foundational for the attitude and soundscape of hip hop, and Moore himself came to be considered by many the Godfather of Rap: Dolemite’s outlandish flamboyance, raunchy rhymes and ghetto braggadocio were a key influence on everyone from Snoop Dogg and Busta Rhymes to the Beastie Boys and 2 Live Crew.
The ultimate Moore homage was paid by Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard in his fluke hit single “Got Your Money.” ODB was in jail when his second solo album Nigga Please was released, making him unavailable for promotional work; the label put out a suitably slapdash music video that crudely recycled and superimposed footage from ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” video over generous clips of some of the funniest moments from Dolemite.
Moore died in 2008, but his immortality is assured thanks to the ongoing influence of his strange body of work on the most prevalent and influential musical genre in our popular culture. It’s fitting that one of the best-remembered films of the blaxploitation genre is not a cynically slumming Hollywood production, but a true work of outsider art.