American Son, Dolemite Is My Name, Eddie Murphy, Kenny Leon, Kerry Washington, Toronto International Film Festival
Day Eight of the Toronto International Film Festival played with narrative sources and the idea of what’s going on in front of and behind the camera. In the end, it offered further proof to Shakespeare’s claim that ‘all the world’s a stage.’
In Dolemite is My Name, from director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), we get the story of Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), a 1970s hustler onstage as a stand-up comic and a two-bit singer of knockoff novelty songs all while working as an assistant manager in a record shop that won’t even play his records. Moore gives every job his all, hoping and praying that one day his big break will come.
Murphy plays Moore as a desperate man with a sense that his horizon line is not so far off in the distance anymore. It’s a captivating return for Murphy, and likely the first real spotlight in his career that’s rooted in drama over comedy. Throughout his career, we’ve watched Murphy create fast-talking dervishes (Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours) and seeming cast of thousands as he essayed multiple roles with distinct personalities and spot-on intonations (Coming to America, with a sequel to come from Brewer and Murphy), but here he fully commits to Moore and the attention to this character reveals a performative warmth with depths like we’ve never imagined from Murphy.
Moore’s break comes when he decides to create a new character for his stand-up, the mythic Dolemite who is a rhyming and signifying machine that speaks to black audiences in ways no one had up to that point. Jiving and cursing through his sets, this figure was black life and culture unchained and Moore capitalized on this – moving from the stand-up circuit to recording an album to…making a movie centering on Dolemite.
But with no experience in film, Moore fumbles and stumbles through the process with a stalwart crew – played by Titus Burgess, Craig Robinson, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph – and this is where life and art reflect and refract in sentimental ways. Moving beyond being Moore’s opportunity, the film represents the chance for this whole team and the larger black community of the day to see themselves onscreen in a joyous and often hilarious fashion.
Dolemite is a blaxploitation hero, but Moore is no action-oriented lover man. All he’s got is his dream and the gumption to make it happen. Nothing about the movie he’s making looks or feels real, yet through will alone, Moore and his team make audiences believe, which is what, with far more money and talent, Brewer and Murphy do here as well. They take us behind the scenes to show us that movie magic isn’t an illusion at all, just commitment.
The stage was set, I suppose when I settled into my seat for American Son, the Netflix release from director Kenny Leon (television adaptations of stage shows like The Wiz Live and Hairspray Live) starring Kerry Washington. Based on the play by Christopher Demos-Brown, who adapts the screenplay, the film explores race and the flowering seeds of racism in a family led by Washington as she waits at a police station late at night to find out what has happened to her son who has gone missing.
The specifics of the situation and its characters unfold slowly over the course of caustic exchanges throughout the night. Kendra (Washington) is a proud black woman gripped by the ever-present fear that black parents feel concerning their sons. Her interactions with a police officer (Jeremy Jordan) working the late shift feature the same righteous fire Washington spit every week on the television series Scandal. And then there’s the combative relationship between Kendra and her estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale), an FBI agent and privileged white man who, it seems, was a questionable match, in terms of their desire and ability to raise a son together. Both love their son unconditionally, but their perspectives and focal points never quite seem to align.
American Son, as both stage play and film, began life at a similar starting point, meaning Leon and his cast had the opportunity to get inside these characters without much regard for the presentation format. The goal was to live so (un)comfortably in their skins, it wouldn’t matter how audiences came to them.
The film subtly expands the setting, although it remains, essentially, a one-room space (with a precious few flashbacks to fill in the gaps). Somehow though, it lacks the claustrophobic sense one might get from the stage play, because we move so much through and around the waiting area that it seemingly expands when it should contract.
And the dialogue, which is heavy on race (both personal and historic), like a play, always gets delivered in broad pronouncements, rather than as heartfelt revelations. There is, surprisingly, little intimacy because what we get are speeches and monologues, speeches and monologues, endlessly. And when the screen goes black, the arguments remain, largely unheard and unheeded.