Rudy Ray Moore is not your typical Blaxploitation movie star. When his first feature film, Dolemite, debuted in 1975, the pudgy stand-up comedian was in his late forties and had made a name doing a club routine as the titular character, but it was in that first movie where Dolemite really came to life. Unfortunately, that movie also mostly forgets the comedy roots and has Moore behaving like a much-diminished version of Shaft minus Richard Roundtree’s good looks, athletic ability, and inherent star quality. In Dolemite, Rudy Ray Moore is a kung fu pimp and hustler trying to make his way in a world where betrayal waits around every turn and you can’t even trust your friends. Though the film occasionally seems to be winking at us, it mostly plays things straight, which doesn’t work when your lead actor is an overweight, middle-aged comedian with absolutely no martial arts ability at all. The world of the first Dolemite outing is a grim place of drug addicts, traitors, and explosive violence with very little levity.
IMDB gives the following plot synopsis for The Human Tornado: “A flabby black comedian defends his community from attacks by stereotypical whites.” Though this description sounds like they’re probably leaving something out, that really does just about cover it. Basically, Dolemite is a righteous dude standing up for his neighborhood, for his own interests, and defending himself and all the fly honeys of the world from racist white people and corrupt authority figures (the two are usually the same). But somehow, Rudy Ray Moore puts enough of his own sense of humor into things that it rarely gets boring and sometimes even feels genuinely surprising. Consider the scene where Dolemite and a beautiful woman go to the bedroom and disrobe. We’re expecting some hardcore lovin’, but the next scene is them in bed exercising. Of course, the sweet love making follows, but Moore knows what we’re expecting and he throws us a curve ball.
Still, for a movie that relies so much on parody, it does have some surprising layers. Not ALL the white people in this movie are horrible racists. In fact, there is at least one white guy in the police force who professes equality through his actions. It also shows some black characters betraying their community, and I feel like both of these things are unconventional. This is most likely credited to the script, which was written by Jerry Jones, a writer and sometimes actor who also appears in this film and was in some legitimately great movies like The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould and Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall. I would have been easier, and probably more appealing, to paint things literally in black and white, but this movie seems to be going for something bigger.
Ghostbusters Ernie Hudson giving an amazing performance. Seriously, he’s pretty much in the background for a lot of the movie, then gives a powerhouse performance near the end. If you watch the movie in open matte, you can almost see the words “Oscar Submission” at the bottom of the screen. Outside of that, there are no named actors that I’m familiar with. Even the director, Cliff Roquemore, worked almost exclusively on Rudy Ray Moore films and never stepped into the traditional Hollywood bubble.
The appeal and the power of the Dolemite movies is undeniable. Even though The Human Tornado goes for laughs and is unabashedly sexist, this is still a movie about reversing the power dynamic and giving voice to those who had not been represented in traditional studio movies. It’s always the independent films that first seem to embody the voice of the people, even when they aren’t directly trying to make an overt political statement. Then the studios ultimately follow suit with their own watered-down contributions. Though it’s not necessarily a “good” movie, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and maybe a few things it didn’t.