Rudy Ray Moore – Rest in Peace

It is with great sadness that I must report the death of Rudy Ray Moore, comedian, musician, filmmaker and actor best known to the world as Dolemite. Rudy first made a name for himself working the “chitlin’ circuit” as a foul-mouthed comedian whose party albums made him a star. In the 1970s, he branched out into movies with his classic blaxploitation films that included Dolemite and The Human Tornado. Rudy was also famous for his comedic toasts—long jokes that were delivered as elaborate rhymes—which earned him a reputation as one of the founding fathers of rap. Indeed, his influence on the world of rap is beyond measure. Rudy passed away in Akron, Ohio, at the age of 81.

I first met Rudy back in 1996, when I was making my documentary on blaxploitation films. We met for breakfast on a Sunday morning in June at the legendary Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Rudy walked through the door, dressed in a vintage dashiki and sunglasses, and every head in the room turned. At a place like Roscoe’s, Rudy was recognized for the shining star that he was.

After breakfast we headed up to the Hollywood hills, where we conducted the interview. I was especially excited to talk to Rudy, because to me he embodied the spirit of independent filmmaking. Not only did he star in his films, he produced them and financed them out of his own pocket with money he made from his comedy albums. While others saw Rudy’s films as crude, rude and at times socially unacceptable, I saw in them a tradition of filmmaking that began with Oscar Micheaux. I saw Rudy as a tremendous influence, who helped to inspire many others, as well as helping break down the doors for many black people trying to get into the business.

Of all the things we talked about during the interview, the thing that stood out the most was when he touched upon the bigger picture of what he was doing with his films. “I’d like to say something about my film career—I came along at a time when make-up artists, directors, screenplay writers didn’t have those great opportunities they do now,” Rudy said to me. “Myself personally, I gave Jerry Jones, my writer, his first break. Marie Carter, who is now a big make-up artist in Hollywood, my film Dolemite was the very first film she did make-up on. Ciff Roqumore, my later director, his first film was Human Tornado. I had a lot of firsts that I brought along and helped in the film industry. That’s the one thing I’d like to make mention of, so the general public will know that I wasn’t just out there for myself. I was out there with a self-help program to help others—to get other people jobs as actors. Ernie Hudson—we know him, a great actor today—my film The Human Tornado was his first screen acting role. I gave him that break.”

Over the years, I would occasionally run into Rudy at various events, and for many years I wanted to do a comic book, The Further Adventures of Dolemite, but we were never able to work out a deal. Every time he saw me, he was always gracious, called me “soul brother,” and always had something encouraging to say. The last time I saw Rudy was in April of 2007, at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle, where he was being honored. He was looking old and tired, and he was getting around with an electric scooter, but his wit was as sharp as ever. After a screening of the most recent Dolemite film (2002’s Return of Dolemite) he performed a live routine for the crowd, where he proceeded to verbally eviscerate a heckler in the audience.

As much fun as I had watching him perform, or watching his movie with him (he kept falling asleep and snoring), the real fun was the opportunity to talk to him about his films and his career. The folks who run the Langston Hughes festival hosted a special dinner for filmmakers, and I was fortunate enough to sit next to Rudy. He shared his thoughts on the importance of remaining true to your artistic vision, and the need for ownership of your films. He talked about believing in yourself when no one else believes in you, and struggling on when the one thing that makes the most sense is just giving up.

Rudy Ray Moore was the eldest of five children, born in Arkansas in 1927. He did not make films that were great, but they were great films none-the-less. His films were and still remain lowbrow and crude, and when watched in mixed company, with enough people in the room, someone is bound to be offended by something. And while some people may fail to see the artistic merit or even the pure genius that abounds in Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw, The Devil’s Son-in-Law, and Disco Godfather, it is there—you just need to squint your eyes and tilt your head a bit to see it.

I will miss Rudy. He was, and continues to be, an incredible inspiration.

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