Reviewdy Ray Moore Project #5 Petey Wheatstraw: the Devil's Son in Law
Well, friends, we are officially at the end of the Reviewdy Ray Moore Project, the column where I take a deep dive into the filmography of Rudy Ray Moore, preeminent bad movie icon, personal hero and the subject of the rapturously received new Netflix biopic My Name is Dolemite starring Eddie Murphy in the title role.
From a purely selfish personal standpoint, this has been an absolute blast. It was love at first sight with all of Moore’s movies when I first encountered them as a teenaged Blockbuster clerk on the north side of Chicago. They were like a portal to another world, an infinitely funkier and more colorful realm of spectacle and sensation, music and comedy, poorly choreographed martial arts hijinks and haltingly delivered rhyming routines that paralleled the Hip Hop revolution taking place simultaneously on the streets of New York.
Rudy Ray Moore’s oddball oeuvre made me fall in love with bad movies at a suggestible age; that love only deepened when I rediscovered Moore’s work in college as a writer for The A.V Club back in its long-ago Madison days. I loved Moore’s movies just as much, if not more, this time around as a forty-three year old veteran pop culture writer with an unfathomably complicated love-hate relationship with Hip Hop.
Rewatching all of these glorious movies reminded me why Hip Hop was a huge component of my personal and professional identity for a very long time, before I got old and lame and fell out of the game. Rudy Ray Moore isn’t just an unusually beloved and revered figure in Hip Hop. He damn near embodies the scruffy underdog soul of Hip Hop, its ability to make something out of nothing, to take the messy raw material of oppression and racism and stereotyping and create something unique and personal and empowering, that also functioned as a massive middle finger to corrupt white authority.
Reconnecting with the joy I’ve long felt watching the movies of Rudy Ray Moore I realize that cracked masterpieces like Dolemite, The Human Tornado and Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law gave me an ultimately false sense of what a blaxploitation movie could be.
In Moore’s hands, a blaxploitation movie could be anything. It could be an electric and unlikely exploration of urban folklore. It could be a riotous musical vibrating with color and movement and sound. It could pave the way for the cultural Big Bang of Hip Hop with rhyming routines rich in profanity, attitude and underdog defiance. It could even be a Chitlin’ Circuit version of a variety show, with casts that included not just actors but also marital artists, singers, dancers and beauty pageant winners. A blaxploitation movie could be a deeply personal vanity project.
Yes, a blaxploitation movie could be anything. What they generally ended up being, unfortunately, were unnecessarily violent, lurid action movies with bargain-basement production values and black casts but Moore’s films poignantly realize the under-utilized freedom at the core of the blaxploitation movement.
Petey Wheatstraw is a spectacularly free movie, a wild rumpus of a supernatural comedy about a human tornado so badass that he emerges from his overwhelmed and horrified mother’s womb looking and acting like a six or seven year old child with a chip on his shoulder. Young, disturbingly large Petey gets mad at the doctor for slapping him and his father for interrupting his peaceful slumber every night by thrusting insistently at his comfy little home in the womb.
Petey backslides something awful, however. The next time we see him he’s getting beaten up by bullies until a wise sensei trains him in the ways of Kung-Fu and lets him know that he can serve humanity and fulfill his righteous destiny both by transforming his body into a devastatingly powerful killing machine and entertaining sad drunks in nightclubs with his fat joke-based style of insult comedy.
Petey’s real-life Chitlin’ Circuit rivals Leroy & Skillet, playing villainous fictional versions of themselves, know that Petey is so brilliant and so undeniable a comic genius that they won’t be able to compete with him honestly so they engage in a rather literal act of overkill and have the younger brother of Petey’s business partner gunned down in a drive-by so that he doesn’t destroy their business by competing against it.
Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law is primarily an utterly outrageous supernatural comedy—from hell!—but when this poor child is murdered it turns serious bordering on dour in a way that is hilarious in its own right. For three very strange minutes this delightful aberration essentially becomes Boyz N The Hood.
Honestly, Petey Wheatstraw does not need to MURDER A CHILD in order to make Leroy & Skillet seem like VERY bad guys and raise the stakes. A movie this ridiculous doesn’t need stakes at all but that doesn’t keep the film from killing way more people than is it all necessary.
Next up Petey Wheatstraw himself is murdered along with much of his community in yet another drive-by but instead of going straight to hell his life unexpectedly gets a whole hell of a lot better.
Yes, dying in a drive-by shooting could very well be the best thing that ever happened to Petey, with the possible exception of meeting the Devil, an elegant, light-skinned African-American Anti-Christ compellingly played by G. Tito Shaw in what appears to be his only film or television performance.
Petey Wheatstraw’s portrayal of the devil deviates from the traditional representation in many crucial respects. For example, the devil is usually depicted as being an exceedingly sharp and savvy fellow, guile personified. He’s the Prince of Lies, the Master of Deception, the Big Red Guy who tricked Eve into giving up eternal paradise in the Garden of Eden for the sake of a nosh on an apple.
In Petey Wheatstraw, on the other hand, he’s a bit of an oblivious goober. He’s so eager for Petey to marry his unspeakably ugly daughter that he’s willing to pretty much hand him the keys to his Satanic kingdom.
To sweeten the deal the devil gives Petey a sweet-ass pimp cane of ultimate power that pretty much makes Petey as powerful as the devil, who in turn is roughly as powerful as his old boss and former friend, God. Now I am not a theological scholar, only an unemployable Juggalo, but it seems wildly counter-productive to give someone you’re trying to manipulate into doing your bidding a tool powerful enough to defeat you.
Sporting a grin as big as California, Petey delights in the absolute power that comes with possessing the devil’s own pimp cane. He uses his dark powers to sabotage Leroy and Skillet’s big debut by controlling their minds and bodies and forcing them to insult and abuse their audience, including their mobbed-up boss, Mr. White the white guy.
Petey uses his cane for devilish trickery and good deeds all the same but the devil apparently thinks even that is not enough so he arranges for Petey to enjoy a Satanic orgy, filmed in sped-up Benny Hill-O-Vision, with a bevy of demonic divas, hell-bound harlots.
True, the devil ends up getting the upper hand over his wily adversary but for much of the film’s duration Petey runs circles around the Prince of Darkness, who foolishly trusts Petey to live up to his word when he should know better.
Petey and his crew are seemingly of the mindset that if they can just find a way to get onboard a Greyhound bus to Oakland then they will escape the devil’s icy grasp permanently because there’s obviously no way Satan could know about something happening all the way at the other end of the state.
Petey Wheatstraw is nothing less than essential Americana; think of it as the Jive-Ass Devil & Funky Danny Dubbs, a film of pure joy and boundless pleasures. It’s not the final film in Moore’s Carter-era heyday but it feels like a perfect note to go out on since it beautifully illustrates what makes Moore such an irresistible and beloved figure.
Petey Wheatstraw blurs the line between being not just a good bad movie but a great bad movie and being a legitimately good movie, a funny and vibrant comedy overflowing with energy and ideas and life, not to mention fashions and music that need to be seen and heard. Honestly, if I were Eddie Murphy, I would play Moore for the wardrobe alone.
I enjoyed Petey Wheatstraw so thoroughly that it didn’t matter whether I was laughing at it or with it. I refuse to feel any guilt about the pleasure Moore’s movies have given me, then, now or always. I’m just glad that I found an excuse to watch all these movies again and that they continue to blow my mind.
Now, there is work that you do because there is a paycheck and a deadline and an important professional relationship connected to it. And there is work that you do because it will be popular or attract attention or do well enough to keep you in business. Then there is work that you do because it just plain feels right, because it feeds your soul and satisfies your muse.
Revisiting all of Moore’s movies for the Reviewdy Ray Moore Project was definitely the second kind of work although looking back I made a very stupid tactical error in publishing these articles before readers had a chance to experience My Name is Dolemite.
But I am glad that this site now contains, among other wonders, articles about every major Rudy Ray Moore movie. You can’t put a financial price on something like that, although, to be brutally pragmatic, if you did, it would probably be pretty low, as these articles have all done very poorly traffic-wise. They’ve pretty much all tanked.
There will soon be more interest in the life and films of Rudy Ray Moore than ever before, thankfully. So do yourself a favor and watch My Name is Dolemite. Then watch all of Moore’s movies and re-read these articles. You won’t be disappointed. That is the Nathan Rabin promise. Any unlike the Devil OR Petey Wheatstraw, my word is good; I can be trusted, on the subject of Rudy Ray Moore’s enduring awesomeness, at least.
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