North Texas Film Festival: ‘Dolemite Is My Name’ and ‘Clemency’

It’s a wonderful experience when a film just gels with an audience and the laughter rolls across like a large wave, or its infectious energy seems to be reverberating through every seat in the house. That was the feeling I got while watching Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name, in which an able cast re-enacts the trials and tribulations of cult film star Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) propel himself from record store stand-up comedian to the echelon of 1970’s exploitation fame.

Naturally based on real events, it wouldn’t be out of the question to subtitle this film “Hustle and Flow” in genuflection to the breakout success first experienced by director Brewer. But unlike his previous films, this one feels owned, bought and sold by Eddie Murphy with a ferocious performance and a supporting cast who all contribute jewels of hilarity and humanity as the rag-tag cast of associates Moore chooses to go along for the ride in achieving breakout success with his Dolemite film series. Profane, bawdy and side-achingly funny, everything about this film is designed to be a ‘crowd pleaser,’ and please it does.

As Moore, Murphy isn’t doing a complete method-acting turn here. More often than not, it’s simply Eddie Murphy up there doing what he’s done best on our screens for 35 years and counting. What he brings to the role is heartfelt self-belief in the role of a man chasing stardom/manifest destiny. Moore himself could have stopped after achieving local success as a comedian with a handful of profitable record albums. But this is a man who wanted something else. And when the film shows this epiphany — as Moore becomes enamored with the projector light and believes he can produce and deliver a better product than what he’s watching on the big screen at one momentous moment in his life — both Murphy and the film sells this belief.

From there, Dolemite Is My Name pivots in telling Moore’s story from hard-scrabbled self-promotion as a raunchy regional celebrity to star-struck independent filmmaker at all costs. More than once, I was reminded of the other great Eddie Murphy comedy, Bowfinger (1999). Both films share a childlike glee in movie-making, celebrating the renegade spirit of Hollywood, where personal art for the masses can be culminated beneath its jaded palm tree exclusivity, despite what history often tells us. And both films treat their representations of low-brow art as something just as magnificently (and honestly) idealized as the Oscar hopeful shooting across town … with large casts, working equipment and certainly a bigger budget.

Assembling a whiz-bang cast of supporting characters from Keegan Michael Key to Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name is rambunctious, kinetic and wholly entertaining. It not only proves that Netflix is continually attuned to financing projects other studios might not touch these days, but that both artist and studio believe in the power of personal vision and the possibility that both can achieve mainstream success.

Dolemite Is My Name will open in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, October 4 before debuting on its streaming platform later that month.

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In the opening of Chinonye Chukwu’s award winning debut Clemency, the film methodically walks us through the arduous process of subjecting an inmate on death row to his final moments via lethal injection. It’s all completed under the stoic, watchful eye of warden Bernadine Williams (played by Alfre Woodward). Not only is this scene important for the logistics that’ll come into play later, but it does an outstanding job of mapping the conflicted emotional terrain that will haunt her for the remainder of the film.

Also suffering, but in a much different manner, is inmate Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As the next one due up for the chopping block in her prison, Clemency doesn’t tackle the big issue of innocence versus guilt or the hot-button topic of corporeal punishment. There are snippets of his possible false conviction talked about along the periphery, and the small but vocal group of protesters outside the prison sure make life hell for those inside, but Clemency shies away from the last-minute courtroom heroics that populate most films dealing with the prison system. Instead, it resonates in quiet conversations, soul searching revelations and each person’s acceptance of having to endure (or carry out) the somber task at hand. For a film full of such loud topics, it’s surprisingly quiet.

As the convicted killer Woods, Hodge matches Woodard blow for blow in believability. His performance, modulating from quiet reserve to frustrated outrage, is carefully live in and humanistic. But the star here is Woodard. Powerful but not preachy, Clemency really stands out for her interior performance. In one scene, after trying to be comforted by her husband (the always welcome Wendell Pierce), her response is so simple and heartbreaking that one becomes completely won over by her wounded persona. It’s a great performance that hopefully will get some late-season awards traction.

Clemency will open in theaters later this year and is being distributed by Neon Films.

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