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‘Dolemite’ breakout Da’Vine Joy Randolph digs deep to uncover little-known ’70s comic

Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Da’Vine Joy Randolph from the film “Dolemite Is My Name” in the L.A. Times Photo Studio at the Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name” tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a comedian known as the Godfather of Rap who turned the theatrical exhibition world upside down in 1975 with his debut film, “Dolemite.” Moore might have been lost to multiple generations if not for the passion of star Eddie Murphy to tell his story, but he’s not the only subject in the Netflix release who finally gets a deserved moment in the spotlight.

Lady Reed, a stand-up discovered by Moore who also appeared in his films, sold thousands of underground comedy records that made their way through African American communities for decades. Da’Vine Joy Randolph was shocked to learn those recordings were pretty much the end-all in her deep dive into portraying the comedy pioneer.

“The problem was there’s nothing on her. Like if you Google her, nothing comes up. Nothing still comes up,” Randolph says. “I had the movies and had done some research, so I knew of her party albums. So her voice was my biggest way into the character.”

In fact, the absence of material on Lady Reed is a glaring example of how pockets of history have been lost as most reference materials are transferred online. Reed doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, despite the recent success of “Dolemite.” Yet when Randolph mentioned the role to her father, she discovered he knew all about both Moore and Reed.

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“I kind of was like, ‘Dad, what the heck?’ Like you knew about all this,” Randolph recalls. “So my dad was a great resource, as well as the movies that she was in.”

Those pictures, the aforementioned “Dolemite,” “The Human Tornado,” “Petey Wheatstraw” and “Disco Godfather,” were Randolph’s only means to observe Reed as a person. She notes, “I could see things in her acting because acting was new to her. So probably more of herself was in it than she thought. And it was interesting and a fun way to kind of decode her.”

She continues, “Like nothing really frazzled her. There’s the sense of, ‘I’ve seen it, I’ve been there, I’ve done that.’ Not cocky, but like there’s very little you can do to impress me. Just very little you can do to shock me.”

Reed’s comedy albums, which can be found on YouTube, informed Randolph’s performance even more. In an era where women were exploited and objectified for their bodies, “especially women of color through blaxploitation,” Randolph notes, Reed took the power dynamic back and instructed women with a play-by-play of not only how to be comfortable in their own skin but to know how powerful that is. Randolph adds, “She instructed you on how to get a man to do what you want them to do, how to take control in the bedroom.”

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It’s really amazing to see how strongly people are responding because, you know, it’s not theater. You just don’t know.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Despite earning a Tony Award nomination for playing Oda Mae Brown in the original Broadway incarnation of “Ghost the Musical” and appearing on TV shows such as “Empire” and “This Is Us,” it’s Randolph’s work in “Dolemite” that has taken her notoriety to another level. It’s one of the benefits of being a breakout in a film streaming in multiple languages to over 158 million subscribers around the globe.

“A lot of times I have to restart my phone because I’m like, ‘Oh, what’s going on? What’s on notifications?’ It’s overwhelming,” Randolph says. “It’s really amazing to see how strongly people are responding because, you know, it’s not theater. You just don’t know [before it screens]. Not saying it’s all a gamble, but in a way as an artist, you really have to believe in what you’re doing.”

What has struck Randolph the most about the reaction is how diverse the audience is that is responding to Moore and Reed’s story.

“It’s white, black, yellow, green, purple, straight, gay, whatever and everything in between,” Randolph says. “Young, old. Other countries. I think to me the biggest mark of a successful movie is when you can tell a universal story. That to me is the ultimate goal.”

Randolph, who recently appeared in Showtime’s “On Being a God in Central Florida,” is seeing her career percolate with upcoming roles in Hulu’s “High Fidelity,” Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” and Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Yet a genuine smile comes across her face when thinking back to filming “Dolemite” in the hot Los Angeles sun so many months ago.

“The whole thing was fun,” Randolph recalls. “You are predominantly shooting somewhere right off of Sunset Boulevard and in ’70s clothing. Like, the whole thing is bad ass. It was just amazing. We had Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes! These are all my uncles. You know what I mean?”


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