When Da’Vine Joy Randolph told her father she was up for the part of Lady Reed in Dolemite Is My Name, he warned her not to mess it up.
"My dad was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Dolemite and Lady Reed?'" she recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "'Those are legends in our culture. You go in there and be a black woman in all of her richness.'”
The movie, currently streaming on Netflix, tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore’s (Eddie Murphy) fraught efforts to bring 1975 Blaxploitation classic Dolemite to the screen. The movie marked Lady Reed’s film debut as Queen Bee, and we follow her journey from struggling single mom to Moore’s confidante and collaborator. (In a refreshing twist, the two are not romantically involved, relying on each other for friendship and mutual respect instead.) She’s bold, sexy, and stylish, and completely unafraid to call her male co-stars on their bullshit.
Reed would go on to play a vital role in black pop culture in the late '70s, appearing in The Human Tornado (1976), Petey Wheatstraw (1977), and Disco Grandfather (1979). In 1994, she was interviewed for a documentary about the making of Dolemite. Still, unlike Moore, who has gone down in history as "the godfather of rap," Lady Reed's contributions have been largely overlooked — until now.
But the 33-year-old Randolph didn’t know any of that when she auditioned. In fact, she didn’t even realise Eddie Murphy was involved. “There was no script to go with the title,” she told Refinery29 in a recent phone interview. “I just knew that it was going to be a period piece in the '70s and the director was going to be Craig Brewer.”
The two had worked together before on Empire, in which Randolph had a recurring part as Poundcake, an inmate incarcerated alongside Cookie Lyons (Taraji P. Henson). But just like Lady Reed, Randolph’s roots are on the stage. She got her start singing on London’s West End and Broadway as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost:The Musical, and was nominated for a Tony Award in 2012. That led to appearances on hit TV shows like The Good Wife, This Is Us, and, most recently, On Becoming a God in Central Florida, alongside Kirsten Dunst.
At one point in Dolemite, Lady Reed thanks Moore for taking a chance on her. “I'm so grateful for what you did for me 'cause I never seen nobody that looks like me up there on that big screen,” she says.
Randolph has taken up that mantle. She’s a plus-sized black woman co-starring in a film that’s bound for the awards circuit — and in true Lady Reed style, she’s a scene-stealer.
Ahead, Randolph explains how the real-life woman she portrays continues to inspire her, and why she wants everyone to know Lady Reed’s name.
Refinery29: Your portrayal in this film is how a lot of people will first learn about Lady Reed’s achievements. Did that put pressure on you in any way?
Da’Vine Joy Randolph: Pressure, no. I was more so on a mission. It really shocked and surprised me that such an integral person of my personal culture was basically invisible. That definitely pushed me into really just giving my all, breathing life into this person, and giving validation to all the many things that she accomplished and conquered.
Was there anything about Lady Reed’s experience that you found surprising, or related to?
She was epic all around, so I wouldn't say that there was one thing. Everything about her was fortifying as a woman. She was a huge advocate for women's sexual independence. A lot of her party albums were instructing women or giving them the playbook on how to be an independent woman and get yours. And not be reliant upon a man and to use your feminine wiles, so to speak, to your advantage. I quickly understood at the level that I had to step up to try and fill these larger-than-life shoes. She's had such an intense life — it's the reason why she can hang with the boys. At the same time, what I love is that she made the choice for both on set and in the movie, that she’s a woman, and they respect her as such and enjoy her for that energy as well.
It’s interesting you say she hung “with the boys” because you, too, were one of the few women on-set for this movie. Did you find that a difficult position to be in?
No — you know what's so interesting? All those men are woke. They get it. And that made a huge difference. I was very pleasantly surprised. They had a real love, and they have a real thirst for history, and knowledge, and research. On another level, they understood and weren’t trying to take on a woman of colour’s voice. It was definitely a collaborative experience with the guys, and they made me feel so supported, and loved, and taken care of. It was very moving actually, just to see that it's possible. If you choose to be conscious enough, if you care enough to care for others, and you're willing to learn. I didn't know what I was getting ready to walk into. And it couldn't have been a better situation. We built something on a personal level that was genuine and authentic. I hope that that gets conveyed in the movie. But it was genuinely a sheer joy and a riot to be a part of.
You look like you’re all having so much fun!
We're actually laughing. That scene where we're recreating the sex scene, we genuinely were cracking up. I think Eddie had a lot to do with that. [He] could have easily came into this situation as like, ‘been there, done that,’ with the vast resume that he has. But he was joyful, and present, and just excited as if it was his first gig. And it was just so much passion, and excitement behind it, coming from him. It was really nice to have the captain of your ship coming in with that kind of positive energy and just being super excited.
Oh, life-changing. When I first met her I cried. Because I knew that as a curvy girl, I was going to be more than good. [I was going to be ] taken care of, and even sought after and desired. Lady Reed has looks, that's how she dressed. We're just starting to get on this plus-size wagon. It's like a ‘love the skin you're in mentality,’ which is amazing. But I think there's still a part two where you can be equally seen as sexy. Not just like, ‘Oh, for a curvy girl, you're cute.’
That was so exciting because — whether in my personal life, or in other projects — it's a struggle. What is out there, it's very limited. And a lot of people aren't open to, or willing to go outside of the minority, quite honestly, and want to stay in their lane. And so it keeps it boring, quite frankly, for someone who’s into fashion. If you're the only main woman in the show, and you have to take on a whole decade like this, it’s tricky. That's a big deal. It’s a very iconic fashion decade, and one woman has to hold it down. It was very daunting, but the moment I met Ruth, I was like, I'm going to be more than okay. We're going to even show off a little bit.
Dolemite Is My Name is available on Netflix now