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While major studios were rushing to cash in on the success of MGM's Shaft (1971), independent producers were often beating them at their own game with a string of popular films starring the likes of Fred Williamson and Pam Grier. One of the more unlikely and endearing stars to emerge in this period was Rudy Ray Moore, often called the Godfather of Rap, who brought a swaggering, hilarious attitude to the Blaxploitation craze with a heavy streak of adults-only humor and sincere but highly unconvincing martial arts.
The Arkansas-born Moore started worked in nightclubs at an early age and developed a taste for comedy during his overseas service in the military, which he followed with a string of R&B and comedy albums in the 1960s. However, the Moore we all know really came to exist at the turn of the 1970s when local tall tales he overheard from a wino about a raunchy character named Dolemite inspired him to spin the idea out into a regular stage and album act, starting with his lewd album, Eat Out More Often. He was immediately successful and had two albums hit the Billboard charts simultaneously, which was enough to give him the idea of channeling his royalty earnings into a feature film.
The result was his first and most famous starring vehicle, Dolemite (1975), a deliriously enjoyable visualization of his tales of pimps, crooks, hookers, crime lords, and stage performers. Almost everyone involved on the $90,000 production was a movie amateur, which gives the film an off-kilter, scrappy quality that has served it well over the years in addition to its capturing of '70s Los Angeles locales rarely seen on celluloid. The minimal story features Moore as convicted pimp Dolemite, who gets out of prison to find that his rival, Willie Green, has been taking over his territory including his own nightclub, The Total Experience. Much kung fu ensues.
Cast as Willie Green in the film was its director, D'Urville Martin, who spent much time with Moore at his headquarters, the legendary Dunbar Hotel. A major hub of African-American culture before World War II, it has since passed through various ownerships and currently stands as an apartment complex known as the Dunbar Village. However, at the time it was at a low point covered with graffiti and surrounded by various criminal elements, the perfect ambience to inspire this and Moore's subsequent three starring features in the '70s: direct sequel The Human Tornado (1976), Petey Wheatstraw (1977), and Disco Godfather (1979). Of course, Moore could also be seen in other films he didn't produce himself, most notably The Monkey Hu$tle (1976) and Penitentiary II (1982).
Also significant in the film is brothel owner Queen Bee, Dolemite's closest friend, played by '70s comedy artist Lady Reed. A Moore discovery, she was introduced to clubs in a similar vein with a strong emphasis on bawdy humor. Moore also presented two of her LPs including the popular The Lady Reed Album: Queen Bee Talks, complete with cover art that turns the tables on the sexual objectification common at the time.
Upon seeing the finished cut of the film, Moore was actually displeased with Martin's directorial work and had him replaced on the next two films by Cliff Roquemore. A busy character actor on TV and film with credits including Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Love, American Style, Martin was brought onto the film by screenwriter Jerry Jones (who also plays FBI agent Blakeley), but according to Moore biographer Mark Jason Murray, Martin's proclivities for vodka and womanizing (in addition to his lack of a driver's license) proved to be major problems during the production.
The tight ceilings in the Dunbar were a main reason for one aspect that's plagued this film for years, the presence of a boom mic hovering at the top of the frame in every home video and TV presentation until its first correctly framed release from Vinegar Syndrome in 2016. The removal of the theatrical 1.85:1 matting exposed this piece of production equipment more than was realized by cinematographer Nicholas Josef von Sternberg (yes, son of the famous Josef von Sternberg), who would go on to shoot Tourist Trap (1979) and Texasville (1990). Seen open matte, the film's comedy is heightened considerably by the bobbing intrusion which would later be parodied most obviously in Black Dynamite (2009), just one of the many traces of Dolemite's powerful influence today.
By Nathaniel Thompson