Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Eddie Murphy gives a really good performance here as Rudy Ray Moore, an influential black entertainer who rose to prominence in the 1970’s. He created one of the most iconic characters in blaxploitation cinema. He’s also considered “the Godfather of Rap.” Murphy is good at embodying the actorly qualities that Moore possessed: the charm and wit. He also embodies the swagger and the determination that would later inspire a whole lot of people. It’s at times heartfelt and rousing, as well as just ridiculous and silly. Murphy handles it all very well. I’ve heard comparisons of this film to the recent The Disaster Artist (2017). Those comparisons are apt, but unfortunately, I would have to say the acting performance from James Franco was a bit more interesting than Murphy’s. Franco’s performance felt like a complete departure in which he lost himself. Murphy’s performance is good, but it did feel like Murphy playing himself and he at times seemed as if he was just echoing parts of his own life here, rather than doing something totally different. Murphy might also be a little bit too old for the role. Murphy is in his late 50’s, whereas around the time of this film, Rudy Ray Moore was in his late 30’s and early 40’s. There’s at least a 20-year difference that shows a little.
Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, this film chiefly focuses on the career of Rudy Ray Moore and specifically five years of that career. The film centers on his creation of the comedy album Eat Out More Often (1970) and his creation of the independent film Dolemite (1975). The film ends with the premiere of that film, just as The Disaster Artist ended with the premiere of the film-within-that-film.
Like The Disaster Artist, this film never dives too deeply into the personal life of Rudy Ray Moore. Now, in The Disaster Artist, the reason that it didn’t dive deeply into the personal life or the back-story of Tommy Wiseau was purposeful because the real-life Wiseau never revealed any of that personal stuff or any of his history. Wiseau kept a lot of that stuff private or hidden. That’s not really the case with Rudy Ray Moore. There is some personal stuff hinted at, but it’s mostly ignored here.
Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) plays Toney, a co-worker at the record store where Rudy is employed. Not much is learned about Toney besides him liking music and comedy. He eventually becomes a de facto producer for Rudy, but he really doesn’t know anything about the business and being a producer. He more or less is just a part of Rudy’s entourage, which Rudy maintains more for show than actual function. Rudy does assign roles for each of his limited entourage, but we never really see them doing anything or contributing anything other than being background and flanking Rudy in most of their scenes. There is a hint that Toney is gay, but that implication is quickly shut down. There have been articles like the one in Vibe magazine that indicates that Rudy Ray Moore was himself also gay. Yet, there’s no indication of that in this film.
Rudy reinforces that he likes boobs and kung-fu, which would tend to be stereotypical masculine and heterosexual things. Yet, Rudy does explain that the vulgar-talking, smooth-acting, pimp persona that he adopted for the stage was just an act. It’s odd that the film never really does anything to peel back the layers of that act and show us what could be considered the real Rudy Ray Moore. In The Disaster Artist, it doesn’t seem like Tommy Wiseasu was putting on an act, even as weird as his behavior was. It’s not to say that Rudy wasn’t genuine or that there isn’t a genuineness to the performance here, but there is also a facade that isn’t quite pierced.
Wesley Snipes (Blade and New Jack City) co-stars as D’Urville Martin, an actor whom Rudy convinces to be in his movie, as well as to direct it. It’s funny, but I actually think Snipes’ performance is probably the best thing in this whole movie. He even outshines Murphy in almost every moment. He’s a total scene-stealer. Murphy is what most Oscar prognosticators are predicting, but I’m more in love with Snipes in this film. He’s a bit of a male diva, despite not having the actual cache to back up his diva or elitist behavior. He’s pretty hilarious here.
If this were The Disaster Artist, Snipes would be the Seth Rogen character, watching in disbelief as this movie is made by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Rudy’s production isn’t as much as a disaster as Tommy Wiseau. Rudy’s production did have its obstacles and stumbles, but it wasn’t a total crap show. The end result wasn’t as bad. Yes, one could question the quality of blaxploitation, but Dolemite wasn’t The Room (2003). As a result, there are a lot of funny, behind-the-scenes moments, but they weren’t as funny as in The Disaster Artist. Murphy was in another film where the focus was on a ragtag team of guerrilla filmmakers. That film was Bowfinger (1999), and even that had more funny moments than here.
Another film that came to mind was Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss! (2004), which was also about the making of a blaxploitation flick. If you want a real behind-the-scenes look on how people put together an independent film, then Peebles’ film is one of the best that I’ve seen. There’s some interesting behind-the-scenes stuff that this film, directed by Craig Brewer, illuminates. One thing in particular is the lighting for black people and the distribution process with four-walling as the start. Providing those tidbits is all this film is though. Yes, it honors Rudy Ray Moore as an important historical figure, but it’s not like The Disaster Artist, which was about an unlikely friendship. It’s also not like Baadasssss!, which was about family and community. Here, there’s nothing much deeper to be found.
Rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content and graphic nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.
Available on Netflix.