The Act of Signifyin(g): Reflections on Dolemite is My Name
There’s a lot to love about Dolemite is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) currently screening on Netflix. Ruth E. Carter’s glorious costume design captures both the period and the creative joy and energy of people who made the original blaxploitation film. And Eddie Murphy, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Wesley Snipes deliver magnetic performances that stand out in a film populated by turns both marvellous and delightful.
About Rudy Ray Moore’s making of Dolemite (D’Urville Martin, 1975) and himself as star, Dolemite is My Name resonates with present day concerns, from Murphy’s own career and comeback to requests for representation, reflected in Randolph’s Lady Reed’s gratitude to Moore for bringing people like her to the screen. Meanwhile, the ‘let’s put on a show’ vibe is infectiously joyful, as all the characters endeavour to make a movie on a shoestring. The love the film has for its subject(s): Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore, and all who contributed to its making is apparent at every stage.
This love is crucial, tempering the arch appreciation that has characterised so much of the enjoyment for a film and sequels. As a white Gen-X-er I was part of an audience that did not so much try to look past the badness as revel in it: the outrageous plots, stilted performances, inelegant fight scenes and an almost omnipresent boom mic were all part of its delightful package. Dolemite is My Name points out how it may have been all that, but it was also so much more.
The film’s affectionate approach does more than express admiration for Rudy Ray Moore or bring a compassionate gaze to the story of a film whose cult value may have disarticulated it from its human roots. This is not James Franco’s The Disaster Artist, which, for all its hints at the humane, functions more as platform for Franco’s artistry than for Tommy Wiseau, the hapless director and star of The Room. It is more an occasion to cultivate admiration for those artists who make a showcase film out of a disastrous one.
My Name is Dolomite’s strength lies not merely in its generous and loving approach to its subject, but in its socially, culturally, and historically embedded one. To read the film within this context is to flip the script on the original film’s perceived badness and to see Dolemite and Moore as engaged in acts of signifyin(g).
Introduced into Critical Theory by scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr, signifyin(g) is a trope that combines Saussure’s notion of signification—the relationship between texts and their associations— and the African American and Yoruban trickster figure of the Signifying Monkey. Signifyin(g) refers to the verbal play in the spaces between or perhaps at the margins of this structure. It is a trope that consumes all available tropes of language and turns them around, repeating, yet also revising them, whether to adapt them to a community’s needs or to resist the dominant language. Intertextual and resistant, it refuses the bondage of slavery and the language forced on those who were taken. And it contains a host of other Black rhetorical expresions,most famously rapping and ‘playing the dozens’.
Signifyin(g) is prominent in the on-screen Moore’s rise to fame (and within the actual man’s own act). Indeed, the signifying monkey is present in his most famed performances (‘Way down in the jungle deep, the badass lion stepped on the signifying monkey’s feet…’). Seen as some as the precursor to rap and hip-hop, this recitation of the signifying monkey’s adventures is rife with the clever word play, insults, and vulgarity that come together in the dozens. In the film, Moore comes to this performance after speaking to older homeless Black men, a set up that secures this speech in community, reflecting African American tradition and a language of both hurt and resilience.
While this signifyin(g) can help illustrate the power of Moore’s act, tied to African-American traditions of mythmaking and resistance, it also lends insight into how Dolemite may itself have been an act of signifyin(g) that recovered the exploits of Blackness from blaxploitation.
In Dolemite is My Name, the character Moore seeks to capitalise on the success of the Blaxploitation film. This itself has a complicated origin story. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) on a shoestring, if not half of one. In its style and the conditions of its making, it evokes Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha’s aesthetic of hunger: angry, raw, and made without access to the equipment of peace of mind that inhabit the transparent, style of classical Hollywood with its narrative trajectory of a single protagonist. Sweet Sweetback tells the story of a man on the run from the police, protected by a community—depicted in multiple verité style scenes—that hides him and misdirects the officers. The on-screen story is a powerful one of resistance to the violence Black Americans were and still are subjected to. And the off-screen story—what happened behind the scenes—is a powerful one of resistance to the ways Hollywood and the American film industry have written out and refused representations of Black Americans.
The eventual success of Sweet Sweetback is often seen to have launched Blaxploitation films: low budget genre films featuring black protagonists, whose low budget ceased to be that aesthetic of hunger, and instead became Hollywood’s aesthetic of opportunity. Here was a cinema of fast and easy production aimed at an audience starved for images of themselves. Although beginning with some promise, as, for instance, Shaft brought prominence to Gordon Parks, an activist photographer and photojournalist, its continuation made risks manifest, with depictions of a Black masculinity that was hypersexualised and prone to violence. What had had revolutionary promise was contained and managed by a white industry—even if it continued to deliver pleasures along the way.
Dolemite is My Name has Rudy Ray Moore and Dolemite take Blaxploitation back, flipping the script back to highlight Black creativity and community and their play with existing forms and expressions.Combining a performance of Moore’s anxieties over his body—paunch and ageing—with on-screen martial arts antics mimicking the original film, My Name highlights the gap between these representations of black masculinity and the reality of their performance.
The sex-scene turned comic most exemplifies this signifyin(g). The sex scene in a Blaxploitation film served multiple purposes, including titillation and a performance of commanding sexualised masculinity. It also placed the Black body on display, as object in fantasies of interracial taboo or in confirmations of a potentially threatening hypersexuality. My Name’s rendition of Dolemite offers a vision of masculinity and titillation whilst undermining them with humour: Even unable to move much, Moore’s Dolemite delivers a sexual performance that (literally) brings down the house. The comedy both masks and upends the pain and oppression of such sequences.
Eddie Murphy’s own performance recognises and unsettles this black macho multiply. As Moore he gleefully declares his Kung-fu moves as camera ready and shares his concern about his appearance. Depictions intended to violence and aggressivity of the screen protagonist are combined with humour, joy, and uncertainty.
Equally wonderful is how Murphy talks back to his own history of performing Black Macho, what Marlon Riggs has described as the attempt to construct a unified Black male identity that simultaneous appropriates and crudely simplifies Afrocentrism. This masculinity, he explains, ‘admits little or no space for self-interrogation or multiple subjectivities… [and] prescribes an inflexible ideal’—one that refuses the existence of gay Black men or any who would ‘deviate from rigidly prescribed codes of hypermasculine conduct’. In the 1980s, Murphy performed this masculinity in his stand-up which was rife with homophobic insults. The Eddie Murphy in My Name is different, inhabiting a 1970s persona to embrace if not a full gamut of identities, then considerably more than he once did.
There is much joy and power to be found in Dolemite is My Name. What could have easily been a still enjoyable traditional biopic infused with backstage verve, becomes a playful proliferation of significations. Dolemite, once limited to its designation of so bad it’s good, becomes a film of immense cultural importance and, at times, resistance.
Things to Read:
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ‘“The Blackness of Blackness”: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey’, Critical Inquiry Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jun., 1983), pp. 685-723.
Aisha Harris, ‘The Original Dolemite is Bad, Very Bad. But It Matters’. New York Times 25 October 2019.
Marlon Riggs, ‘Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a Snap! Queen’, Black American Literature Forum Vol. 25, No. 2, Black Film Issue (Summer, 1991), pp. 389-394.