Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: February is Black History Month, so we’re looking back on great performances by Black actors that the Academy Awards ignored.
The Netflix-distributed Dolemite Is My Name is filled to the brim with funny people. Of course, front and center is Eddie Murphy as Blaxploitation icon Rudy Ray Moore, leading a cast that includes guffaw-inducing brothas Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess, Keegan-Michael Key, and Craig Robinson. But, without question, the most surprisingly hilarious performance is delivered by someone much less expected to come with the funny: Wesley Snipes.
Yes, the man who spent most of the ’90s whooping asses all over the big screen pulls off quite the scene-stealing feat in Craig Brewer’s comic biopic. As D’Urville Martin, the self-centered actor who gets roped into both directing and co-starring in Moore’s debut cult classic Dolemite, Snipes is a boozy, flamboyant delight. He saunters through every scene like he just left a cocaine orgy, all hazy and wigged-out, cooing “Actione!” before a take. (Larry Karaszewski, who co-wrote the script with longtime partner Scott Alexander, has said Snipes brought that druggy flair to the character, since he didn’t want to be the only person who didn’t get laughs.)
In the brief time Snipes is in Name, he serves as the antagonistic yin to Moore’s optimistic yang. According to the documentary The Legend Of Dolemite (which you can see for free on Tubi and Crackle), the late, real-life Martin—whose filmography included co-starring roles in several Fred Williamson movies and bit parts in mainstream films like Rosemary’s Baby—did not think very highly of Moore and his very-low-budget production. Screenwriter Jerry Jones remembers Martin telling people he thought Dolemite was “a piece of shit and it wouldn’t turn out to be anything and he wasn’t giving it his best.”
Indeed, Snipes successfully captures Martin’s pouty frustration at having to helm such inferior product. “What planet is this cat on?” a screwdriver-swigging Martin asks the cinematographer (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they film Moore’s weak attempt at karate during a fight scene. But before he bolts when the film finally wraps, there is an earnest moment where Martin tells Moore to dig deep as an actor before their big, climactic scene together.
Snipes gives a truly eye-opening performance in Name, both figuratively and literally. (He constantly bugs out his eyes in this thing, looking exactly like ’70s-era Cameo frontman Larry Blackmon.) He practically reminded audiences that, even though he’s known for such badass roles as vampire slayer Blade and power-mad druglord Nino Brown in New Jack City, Snipes still has the same comic chops he displayed in White Men Can’t Jump and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.
Snipes is just one of many people in Dolemite Is My Name snubbed by the Academy. (Of course, Murphy deserved to be up for Best Actor, and Tony nominee Da’Vine Joy Randolph should have received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as Moore cohort Lady Reed.) But then, Name is basically a comedy, and the Academy tends to frown on anything that’s funny. Still, while the Oscars may have ignored Snipes along with his costars, it’s quite the kick seeing him revitalize his career by playing comic foil to Eddie Murphy. In a couple of weeks, Amazon Prime will drop Brewer’s Coming 2 America, where he’ll play a warlord general ready to take over the kingdom of Murphy’s King Akeem. If Snipes goes full-tilt the same way he did in Name, he’ll once again be the funniest thing in an Eddie Murphy movie.
Availability: Dolemite Is My Name is streaming on Netflix.