Dolemite (1973) can be perfectly described as so bad that it’s good. It’s a staple backyard and blaxploitation film, following the violent and decadent lifestyle of pimp Dolemite. The cult classic was born of Rudy Ray Moore’s self-adopted stand-up comedy/rapper persona. A symbol of 1970s nightclub life, he’s frequently donned in colorful and vibrant clothing. He never lacks a half-naked “Dolemite girl” under one or both of his arms. It’s famous for its limited budget, terrible acting, frequent nudity, comical violence, and raunchy dialogue. It presents some self-aware hilarity and absurdity which ultimately leads to an enjoyable viewing experience.
After his nemesis Willie Green sets him up, Dolemite wrongly goes to prison for twenty years. He loses ownership of his nightclub, which he fondly named The Total Experience. With the help of Queen Bee and his girls, he exacts revenge on Willie Green and works to rebuild his reputation on the street. A black reverend works within the chaos Dolemite brings to the streets. They aim to raise a black separatist movement. Meanwhile, two corrupt white cops working for the racist mayor attempt to bring Dolemite down. The mayor ironically demands equality between races as part of his political campaign.
At the most basic level, it’s a serious-turned-humorous revenge story. Dolemite fights to retake his club, has copious amounts of sex, resists arrest, and seeks to regain influence lost while in prison. The narrative is considerably weak, of course following the pattern of mediocrity set by the film. It attempts to be sophisticated like an intense police drama, yet comes out to be contradicting, confusing, and boring. In an attempt to create a backstabbing, violent gang atmosphere, it becomes difficult to tell if Dolemite will shoot up a group of men or rap for them.
Keeping tabs on who Dolemite’s enemies are, aside from Willie Green and the corrupt cops that stalk him, is taxing as a viewer. It creates a chaotic atmosphere that makes Dolemite appear to be a godly figure, wreaking havoc on whoever and wherever he pleases. This can be a hindrance or a source of entertainment, depending on your tastes. Of course, people today will more likely flock to this film for its blaxploitation qualities, and not the storyline.
Students of gender studies would have a field day picking apart the portrayal of the Dolemite girls. Dolemite’s club, The Total Experience, is a glorified brothel that serves as his base of operations. His girls are often topless, as well as vulgar and crass in describing their desires to Dolemite. Their dialogue feels awkwardly forced at times. There are several sex scenes, bouts of nudity, and a borderline rape-murder scene. All of these clearly look to cash in on the lavish lifestyle of make-believe pimps like Dolemite. Looking at the film as a pimp fantasy further amplifies its artificial aesthetic and materialistic qualities.
One can see this film from a broad perspective as a revenge fantasy and an attempt to romanticize gang conflict between African Americans in conjunction with police intervention. However, the fight cinematography is hilariously terrible. There are a few scenes of gunplay, but the real treat is the hand-to-hand combat. Kicks and punches rarely connect with others and the motions are painfully slow. The dialogue removes any sincerity from any conflict in the film. It’s also not clear if it’s meant to be kung fu or karate. Advertising for the film said it includes kung-fu action, and yet at the beginning of the film, Queen Bee excitedly tells a recently released Dolemite that his girls had just finished karate school.
Dolemite is visually appealing with deliberately over-the-top sets and apparel. Costumes are delightfully vivid to match the equally colorful dialogue and stylized violence. In one notable scene, Dolemite punches someone so hard that his hand literally goes through their body with guts and blood everywhere. It’s so clearly choreographed and badly edited that it lacks any real punch. However, it’s the terrible editing and camerawork that further adds to the hilarity of the film.
There is an abundance of juicy and raunchy one-liners throughout the film. In fact, I’m sure someone could find success running a Twitter account impersonating Dolemite himself. Gems like “if you see a ghost, cut the motherfucker,” and “I’m gonna let ’em know that Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up motherfuckers is my game!” show up all over the film. Each of Dolemite’s appearances on screen end up being worthwhile thanks to him leaving such great lines on the corpses he leaves and commentary of his surroundings.
This is my first foray into blaxploitation film. Perhaps my virgin eyes are appalled by the excessive violence and frequent sexual content. Though I was appreciative of the humor brought by the film’s poor production and execution. Upon perusing reviews online, I found several people suggesting viewers play “spot the boom mic.” This can either point out how terrible the film production is or exemplify how prominent and wonderfully entertaining the backyard-exploitation aesthetic appears.
By the end of the film, I could certainly appreciate the work that Rudy Ray Moore put into his character. He is evidently having a wonderful time in front of the camera. From his performance, he’s clearly ecstatic about bringing his stage persona to life through film. It evoked a nostalgia within myself for making awful action movies with my friends in elementary school and then trying to direct more serious dramas in high school. It’s clearly more difficult than it seems, as Dolemite shows through its laughable production and lackluster mechanical ability with the camera.
Dolemite may be a case where the film isn’t exactly meant to be funny or intentionally bad, yet the film still seems to be self-aware and perfectly content with its flaws. It is impossible to think that Rudy wasn’t chuckling to himself behind the camera over some of the absolutely raunchy lines and terrible combat scenes in the film. By the end, Dolemite himself becomes akin to a superhero or super-pimp, with unquestionable influence on the streets. He is a king among his girls and fears nothing, not the reverend and his separatists, nor the cops and their choking supremacy. Dolemite paints himself as an icon in his own fantasy world. He has the freedom to do whatever he wants. It’s through this notion that he can successfully become a vessel for the absurdity portrayed in this film.
Dolemite Final Word:
Once again, this film can be perfectly described as being so incredibly bad that it’s good. It’s the failures of the film that bring hilarity and entertainment, of which can make it subjectively good. It has the potential to be wonderfully enjoyable if you certainly don’t take it to heart. It’s a backyard romp with exploitation film qualities that demand viewers to suspend their disbelief and simply enjoy the chaos. Perhaps this is the heart and spirit of both blaxploitation and exploitation film. Being brand new to such a strange and unique genre, I can definitely appreciate that.
Dolemite and other blaxploitation classics can be found digitally remastered for the first time on HD from Xenon Pictures. They are available on Vudu and other VOD services.