“Dolemite Is My Name,” the Signifying Monkey and the Black Comedic Tradition
Today, the based-on-real-life comedy Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix.
The film, set in 1970s, follows struggling performer Rudy Ray Moore (played by Eddie Murphy) who moved from Arkansas to chase show business in LA. Down on his luck, Moore goes for broke in his quest for stardom by taking on the jive-talking, raunchy and outrageous alter ego “Dolemite.”
I don’t want to spoil the film’s plot too much, but in many ways, the character Dolemite is a metaphor for the Signifying Monkey—a character rooted in West African mythology, carried with enslaved people to America and transformed into African American folklore.
Though the specific details may differ depending on what part of the country it’s told, the story goes as follows: the Signifying Monkey hurls insults at a lion (telling him he is merely reporting what an elephant was saying about him). The lion confronts the elephant and gets his clock cleaned. Though the lion gets payback on the Signifying Monkey in the end, it’s a story of wit, cleverness and wisdom. It also highlights the African American Vernacular English tradition of “double talk.”
History and linguistics scholars date double talk back to Africa, but in the American context, it stems from the Black slave experience. Enslaved people had to be good at “acting” to survive their captivity—appease slaveowners’ temperament; smiling when they were demoralized, playing dumb when they were anything but; saying “Yes Suh” when they wanted to, in Dolemite’s eloquent phrasing, fuck a muthafucka up.
It was also way to express emotions and send messages without the slave-owners knowing what they meant — “bad meaning good,” singing about the Israelites escaping from Pharaoh to symbolize them running away from the plantation; the overseer, laughing at the story of the ugly and fat lion, but being the only person who doesn’t get that the joke’s on him.
When Dolemite says “Dolemite is my name, and fuckin’ up muthafuckas in my game!”, the cursing and raunchiness is transgressive, but not just a rejection of conventional politics of respectability—it’s a push back on an anti-black society that dictates his every move, his daily schedule, how he can or can’t express his desires, what he can or can’t dream, what goals are in his reach or off limits to him.
It is a caricature on its face, but Dolemite is doing what those enslaved on plantations couldn’t do—telling everyone exactly what he feels exactly when he feels it, without caring what they think in return. Yes, we see the stereotypical and absurd aspects of it all—Kung Fu, sex, driving cars fast, pimps, hoes, and kickin’ Whitey’s ass—but the Black experience is absurd. After all they have gone through in the history of this country (kidnapping, rape, slavery, lynching, eugenic experiments, redlining, police brutality, discrimination in health, education and employment, etc.), how can Black people find joy? How do they craft such beautiful comedy out of terrible tragedy?
Signifying—or making fun of each other—wasn’t just a verbal battle of wits, it was cathartic and subversive. If one poor sharecroppers makes fun of how poor another sharecropper is, the double talk is that they are both poor (we see the homeless men do this in the film). The signifying passes the time, gives them an infinite game to play, and makes light of their grim situation. It’s the darkest comedy for the darkest people. It was “life is bad, but I’m gonna laugh anyway.”
The film also highlights the bittersweet irony to the rise and fall of Blaxxploitation—a comedic genre tackling issues of the urban Black experience through funny, yet harmful and reductive stereotypes; a period of Black cast and crews making film for Black audiences bankrolled by white and Jewish companies being brought down, not just rendered as a passing fad by fickle audiences, but through bad reviews and negative analysis from Black filmmakers, actors, writers, academia, etc. Though the film ends on a high note, the reality of Dolemite and Blaxxploitation could be understood as a tragedy as well.
Dolemite Is My Name is a feel good story in the same ways the Black experience is a feel good story—its absurd when you hear about it, but when you see it, it makes you laugh and cry. And most of all, it is going to tell you like it is. Muthafucka!