Admittedly, I’ve never seen the original Dolemite film or knew about Rudy Ray Moore’s story, so when Dolemite Is My Name was released on Netflix, I wasn’t very motivated to see it. I wouldn’t appreciate all the intricate connections to the original film or Rudy Ray Moore’s story. I had no idea how connected I would be, as an artist also dedicated to her mission. We all have been Rudy Ray Moore chasing our Dolemite dreams at some point. The film articulated that process powerfully, as well as tell the story of the making of a classic Blacksploitation film. However, this movie did everything but exploit Black talent, power, friendship, and determination.
This movie met me in my artistic truth. Eddie Murphy—maybe because he knows the feeling—depicted the hunger that many creators have when they want to be great. Not every artist wants to be famous but every artist wants to get as close and intimate with their passion as possible. Dolemite Is My Name was that story. Yes, Moore was driven and determined to see his name everywhere and, in the end, he succeeded. But the movie reveals the bumpy road that’s guaranteed when you answer your calling. Rejection after rejection after rejection. Disappointment, discouragement, and doubt. You don’t know when it ends in success or which door will open, but we artist keep going anyway. This process is real for us. We may be good at what we do but we are not always sure of what we do. We may have the idea but not the funds or information to execute. Sometimes we give up like Moore did at one point and sometimes we make it through that phase to get up again. It’s a working artist’s constant dilemma and privilege.
The montage of shows and movies Moore went to in hopes to fine tune his material reminded me of another artist reality: If you want to be great in your craft you need to interact with others in your craft. Moore was at show after show, learning, becoming inspired (maybe borrowing material?), which propelled him into next steps. This can be the hardest part. Be it school, work, family, or all of the above, it is not always easy to get to each open mic, jam session, or gallery. Soon, we may feel completely out of touch and we start to contemplate a comeback. Dolemite is a reminder to continue to seek that inspiration in your artistic community, and if you don’t have one, find them.
I was shocked that I was expecting the movie to turn to tragedy at some point, not knowing the story. Every scene that Moore and his friends got a win, I was waiting for the loss, the monumental setback, the betrayal. I was apprehensive. When the movie was over and heart-breaking trauma did not ensue, it made me wonder how common it is for Black films to be riddled with trauma and pain. This was a refreshing take on Black life that was real without rose colored glasses or pain covered eye masks.
FRIENDSHIP. We got to see friendship among Black people! Friendship and support this sweet are hard to find on the big screen sometimes. When we’re not being over sexualized or brought back to the slave era yet again, rarely are we seeing untainted friendship. In the beginning of the movie, when Moore pitched the idea of Dolemite, his friends roasted him for being a has-been and he stormed out. It was not a second later that Jimmy, played by Mike Epps, was in the parking lot with him to apologize, support, and listen to Moore’s frustration with having nothing after having it all. I was shocked. Black men supporting each other and being vulnerable. Yes, this exists in real life. It’s nice to see it broadcast unapologetically like this. The friendship between Moore and Lady Reed was also heartwarming, genuine, and long-lasting. Lady Reed became a part of the larger group of friends that remained steadfast to the end. Friendship was huge theme and is an important reality in an artist’s life. I love being able to talk to musicians, singers, painters, and filmmakers about their craft (see Candid Convos) and get the opportunity to receive that love and support and have the privilege to give it back in return.
Lastly, Dolemite Is My Name is hilarious! Wesley Snipes was a riot, especially because the Wesley Snipes I know and imagine is not all smiles or silliness but swards and guns. Another artistic reality: We got to lighten up. One thing all my mentors have in common is telling me to slow down and not lose my mind over something that is supposed to bring me joy. Like other young people, we have time and deadlines for our artistic process, success, or growth. Rarely are these deadlines met and most of the time it’s a good thing that our lives unfolded the way they did or opportunities presented themselves at the right time, not our time. As I finish my Masters and close a chapter of my life to open another, I get to honor the many realities that come with artistic creation. Some realities are harder than others but Rudy Ray Moore’s story is a reminder to keep that passion alive and to follow it though, whether we know what it looks like or not.
P.S. 100% of the time we don’t know what it looks like and that’s okay.
When I heard that Joker was premiering at the Venice Film Festival, I was shocked. DC movies, as of late, have not been as appealing and enjoyable to me as an average movie goer. I found the writing to be forced at times and the story arc falling all over the place. The Dark Knight, however, remains an all-time favorite, mostly because of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. I always claimed that Ledger’s interpretation would always be my favorite. But after seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker, I’m finding it hard to pick a favorite, as both of them highlight intriguing parts of the comic book character in captivating ways. I was interested to see the movie with a more critical lens and heightened expectations after I heard the rave reviews, although some told me to expect more of the same: pretty good acting, underwhelming story... I wanted to see for myself. When the credits rolled after the film, the two names I kept repeating out loud were Todd Phillips, writer and director, and Joaquin Phoenix. It might be the writer in me, but it felt like I was behind the scenes hearing the director’s vision while it was coming to life on screen; as if I heard Phillips’ and Phoenix’s conversations on set. Below are few of the many decisions that caught my eye, making this movie one that I won’t easily forget.
Cello, cello, and more cellos. As a lover of string instruments, I know a cello when I hear one and cello is the perfect instrument to articulate the Joker’s depth and heaviness. It seemed to be the main score of the movie, the cello’s bellowing growl made an appearance at key moments of the Joker’s downward spiral and haunting acceptance of his true nature. The score filled the silent moments with ominous certainty, making you want to lean back in your seat to gain space from the inevitable: he was only going to get worst. Joker’s voice was another decision that added to the complex auditory experience. Phoenix’s voice remained innocent, soft, and light, even in anger. I believe it forced viewers to see the human underneath the sickness and provided a complicated juxtaposition to his actions. But it was his horrifying weight loss that sent me over the edge. It’s nice to see Joaquin Phoenix in post-production interviews looking healthy.
As someone who does not know DC comics and the many origins of the Joker in detail, I was surprised at how much I supported for the Joker’s redemption. In this movie you see first-hand the Joker’s demise, as he tries to get better and join the “normal” world saying, “I just don’t want to feel bad anymore.” It seemed like he was really trying! But Phillips and his team wanted you to sit in his defeat in silence. Viewers experienced his failure and desperation intimately just long enough so that by the time he decides to embrace his madness, take control, and cease compromising, you’re super excited for him, almost happy! There was one violent scene in particular that my boyfriend and I didn’t even flinch at because, yeah, that guy deserved it after what he did to Author Fleck. The movie played on a delicate balance of redemption and madness. You awaited the Joker’s self-realization, but you don’t feel prepared for what is going to come as a consequence of that. And I will tell you now that you’re not going to be prepared.
It is no secret that the Joker is crazy. But how the movie navigates the topic of mental illness resonates with a somber reality in today’s America. The Joker speaks explicitly on mental illness and the resentment he has for those who chose not to see that struggle or refuse to understand him. In one scene, he expressed his frustration in giving the world kindness, joy, and laughter but receiving nothing but disrespect and erasure in return. This is not just the complaints of crazy villains in movies, but anyone who’s met this unforgiving world with kindness only to receive nothing or worst based on their mental illness knows how that can feel. The first thing that came to mind at that scene was the many suicides and violent acts completed by those trying to live with a mental illness but being met with silence or shame (I’m talking about mental illness here not white privilege used in court to justify hate crimes). It was a worthy theme and a timely one. How easy it is to record, make fun, or stigmatize those who’s mental illness is spilling on the streets in the eyes of the homeless or the weirdo at school. The Joker is an extreme reminder that those people, like all people, have breaking points. But it seems only when it is too late that mental health becomes a topic of discussion (insert every school shooting in the last year).
The only other thing I heard about the Joker before going to see it was that there were heightened police presence at certain theaters on opening night, after authorities learned of some chatter on the dark web from inspired individuals. I don’t know DC Comic characters (or any comics for that matter) very well, but I’m not sure if there is another super hero or villain that inspires such a response in the real world. There is something about the Joker that disturbs but also stirs people. I had to shower that film off of me when I got home, because it was so potent with the disturbing reality of humanity’s capacity for darkness. The Joker is fiction but the themes are made real by Todd Phillips, his team, and Joaquin Phoenix.
Tayllor Johnson currently resides in New York City where she has begun her journey into Poet. Passion. Period. In between those learning moments, she sometimes has just enough time to jot a few lines...