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Harriet, Dolemite and the Art of Storytelling

Left: Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite is my Name.” Right: Cynthi Erivo in “Harriet.”
Left: Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in “Dolemite is my Name.” Right: Cynthi Erivo in “Harriet.”

Thinker’s Notebook

  By Marlon Rice

Two particular movies came out over the last two weeks that depict fictionalized stories about a pair of Black folks that were both iconic within their own eras and environment. 

I want you to appreciate that first sentence, as it took me half an hour to find the words that adequately allude to a fair comparison between Harriet Tubman and Rudy Ray Moore aka Dolemite. 

Two weeks ago, “Dolemite is My Name” was released on Netflix after wowing audiences at film festivals across the globe over the summer. The movie stars Eddie Murphy as the title character, and it tells the story of a middle-aged Black man who, after a string of failed attempts at show business, finds his niche and funds the creation of his movie, a movie that became a Black exploitation classic.

Last weekend, “Harriet” opened in movie theaters nationwide. “Harriet” is the fictionalized account of Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist who freed hundreds of slaves through the Underground Railroad.  

While the reviews of “Dolemite” have been stellar, the discussion about the Harriet movie has been far more polarized. The Dolemite reviews aren’t surprising. You have a comedic legend playing the role of another comedic legend. This is Eddie Murphy’s first R-rated movie in 20 years and the cast reads like a “who’s who” in Black Hollywood. Any movie about a Black guy sticking it to the proverbial “man” or finding a way to circumvent the system will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Who doesn’t want to stick it to the man?

And while one could argue that no one in the history of the Black experience in America has stuck it to the man more than Harriet Tubman, the Harriet movie isn’t being received with the same benefit of the doubt. Critics point to the storyline, the appearance of an apparent “white savior” plot, the lack of historical accuracy and even questions about the choice of lead actress, British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo. One review that I read complained that too many white people were in the movie theater. Another review pointed out that there was very little focus on exactly how horrible slavery was.

Movies are a medium of entertainment. When a person makes a choice on a movie, they are choosing to commit two hours with the hopes of being entertained. They want to be frightened or they want to laugh. They want to cry, or they want to learn something new. I can remember when Nate Parker released his “Birth of a Nation” film. From the release of the first trailer, you knew that the film was going to give you a look into slavery that you’ve never seen before. That movie was so visceral in its depiction that you could hear the weeping of the audience as you sat there watching. Nate Parker told the story of Nat Turner with just enough authenticity that you felt an honor in watching him. Was it totally accurate? Of course, it wasn’t. But it was accurate enough to make sense. You didn’t leave “Birth of a Nation” questioning the semantics of it all. 

Same with “Dolemite is My Name.” They didn’t sacrifice the spirit of Rudy Ray Moore for the sake of the movie. This is his story, and just because it isn’t all accurate doesn’t mean that it’s all a lie. 

So, while the Harriet movie doesn’t have to be accurate to be effective, it does have to be effective enough. Harriet is such an important figure of Blackness that viewers that are aware of her significance are going to be extra sensitive regarding her likeness. You can’t get the “Queen Mother of the Abolitionists” wrong. The dirty business of slavery, the even dirtier business of escaping slavery only to return and free hundreds of others – you cannot disrespect that process by sanitizing it. Not only does it do the story of Harriet an injustice, but it does us all an injustice. She is that important. 

I enjoyed the Dolemite movie, and I promise to watch the Harriet movie the same way that I watched the Dolemite movie. On my couch, on Netflix or whatever streaming service will carry it once it leaves the theaters. First impressions are everything. At first sight, the Harriet trailer was lukewarm at best. And when telling the story of Harriet Tubman, if you can’t wow me and compel me to see the movie in a 60-second trailer, then you’re probably doing something wrong.  

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