It’s Dolemite Vs. the Devil in PETEY WHEATSTRAW

Rudy Ray Moore is back in the news thanks to the recent announcement that Eddie Murphy will be playing Moore in a biopic for director Craig Black Snake Moan Brewer. Moore packed enough life into his 81 years to fill multiple movies, what with his dual life as ardent churchgoer and preacher and career as a foul-mouthed comedian/musician/actor/writer/director/what-have-you. Moore parlayed stories he heard about a larger-than-life pimp named Dolemite into a stage persona by that same name, eventually self-financing a feature film for himself called, what else, Dolemite. The underground success of that film led to a brief, memorable career turning out sequels and unrelated but similarly-styled features and a music career, in which Moore’s penchant for telling filthy stories via rhymes backed up with jazz and his R&B musical background became an early influence on the nascent rap genre.

As luck would have it, Xenon Pictures has recently released HD remasters of many of Moore’s films on VOD. I don’t know if Petey Wheatstraw, written and directed by Cliff Roquemore, is the best of those films, but it has to be the craziest. This thing is absolutely insane, a gloriously hand-made and unrepentantly silly action/comedy/horror/martial arts/ego-trip mash-up that tosses folklore and blaxploitation into a blender and hits frappe. The production values barely rise above the level of Ed Wood and similar schlock merchants, but there’s an eager energy to the proceedings and a gleeful, “Can you believe we’re making a movie!” atmosphere that makes Petey Wheatstraw a total pleasure.

I’m going to try and explain the plot of Petey Wheatstraw to you now, but the truth is it’s late, I’m a little tipsy, and this is the kind of thing that sounds all kinds of confused even at the best of times. Petey Wheatstraw opens with Moore in Hell, narrating his own legendary life prior to becoming the Devil’s son-in-law. Petey, Petey tells us, was born during a tropical storm (cue stock footage), emerging from his mother’s womb already grown and able to walk, talk, and mouth off. Young Petey is eventually discovered by a wandering martial arts master (look, it’s a whole…just stay with me, folks) who trains Petey in the exquisite art of kicking ass and looking good while doing it. But after completing his training, Petey admits that he doesn’t especially want to be a legendary wandering warrior fighting for truth and justice and etc. He wants to be a stand-up comedian.


Petey succeeds in this, as he does all things, to the point that even his presence in a given city is liable to send shockwaves through the local economies. That’s big trouble for local promoters Leroy (Leroy Daniels) and Skillet (Ernest Mayhand), who have recently gone into hoc with a powerful gangster named Mr. White (and if your immediate guess was that the predatory Mr. White is the only white person with speaking lines in this film, you would be right!) in order to bring about their own stage spectacular, and now worry that Petey is going to eat up their ticket sales with his own performances.

Long story short: the feud between performers escalates with shocking rapidity, and it’s not too long before Petey is riddled with bullets and sent straight to Hell, where Lucifer (G. Tito Shaw) offers to restore Petey to the land of the living on the condition that after he has completed his vengeance, he will return and marry Lucifer’s hideous daughter.

The plot is largely a loose framework for Moore to indulge in fight scenes, gag scenes (including one very literal ‘gag’ scene, in which a villain soils himself during an encounter with Petey and for the whole next scene the other villains are all choking from being near the stench), and eventual supernatural interference. Petey Wheatstraw never gets within spitting distance of what we today might accept as professional filmmaking, but it honestly doesn’t matter. The slapdash, homemade qualities are consistently charming, especially as Roquemore stretches every penny he has to portray the surreal, magical elements of his story.

It helps that Roquemore proves to actually have a solid eye for compositions and editing, with some moments and set-pieces actually working like gangbusters. Late in the game, Petey goes on a rampage through Leroy and Skillet’s concert hall, laying the place to waste with the powers imbued to him by Lucifer’s pimp-cane (look…I got nothing. It is what it is). Roquemore’s cuts hit as the fireballs go up, and Moore is framed from behind, looking every bit the cinema icon as fire and sparks rain down around him. Even the look of Hell (red filter, black background) is oddly evocative at times. There’s a lot in the film that is laughably cheap and could play as camp, but because Moore and Roquemore lean into that tone with abandon (at times, Petey Wheatstraw’s cheery sense of excess predicts the likes of Undercover Brother and Black Dynamite), you feel like you are laughing with the movie, sharing in the good time had by the cast and crew as they cobbled this craziness together.

Petey Wheatstraw runs out of gas by the end, falling into a trap of endless fight scenes and labored exposition. But even acknowledging that the film overstays its welcome a tad, Petey Wheatstraw is a baffling, delightful combination of totally disparate elements that come together in ways both inventive and dumb, counter-productive and wildly creative. There’s really nothing else like it out there, so if you’re any kind of film fan you have an obligation to give the devil (and/or Dolemite) his due and spend an evening with Petey Wheatstraw.

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