Originally shown December 29, 2010
You know what cheers me up when I’m feelin’ shitty? No, not rolled-up aces over kings; if you feel that way you should head over to this YouTube clip and fast-forward to 5:15. What cheers me up is the 2009 movie Black Dynamite.
Put simply, Black Dynamite is a parody of so-called blaxploitation movies. We’re not talking about the genre-defining blaxploitation films, like Shaft, Superfly, or Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song. We’re talking about the pictures which ripped off and cashed in on those pictures, films like Truck Turner, Slaughter, and the filmography of the inimitable Rudy Ray Moore. These are films with ridiculous plots, hammy acting, and plenty of violence. This photo describes these movies perfectly: equal time for the guns, the nunchaku, and the busty women.
Understanding the humor inherent in a lot of those old films is not a new thing. Most famously, the Wayans Brothers did it with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and there are some blaxploitation aspects to the uber-cult favorite Pootie Tang also. But those films are more of a spoof in the style of Airplane!, taking the structure of a previous movie but then just throwing every conceivable joke against the wall and seeing what sticks.
Black Dynamite goes a different way: it’s a satire, where the laughs come from the fact that the filmmakers re-created a blaxploitation film down to the smallest detail, and are playing its more ridiculous aspects completely straight. In fact much of the montage footage in the film is actually stock footage from the Sony catalog, including many older blaxploitation movies, the Charlie’s Angels TV show, and Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action. Director Scott Sanders doesn’t just try to make it look like the 1970s, he tries to re-create them on set.
Star and co-writer Michael Jai White is great as the title character. He understands perfectly that selling his scenes as a satire means selling them as a legitimate action hero. When he’s asked to smile and delivers the stone-faced reply “I am smilin’,” it’s a killer comedy moment, but it also works as a badass warning you might have seen from Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. He has a love for the material that comes out in the little things, such as the way he imitates Jim Kelly’s distinctive kiai, or the killer Rudy Ray Moore impression from a Comic-Con interview that appears in the bonus materials.
The awkward issue that you don’t hear about a lot – not even in this essay on the history of blaxploitation from the Black Dynamite website – is misogyny. You can’t have movies with pimps as sympathetic characters and expect them to also have strong female roles. Black Dynamite skirts around this issue, but it can’t really come at it directly because it’s trying to be an accurate remake. Fortunately Salli Richardson-Whitfield grounds the movie with great work as the love interest; she plays the role straighter than straight, letting the comedy bounce off of her giant Afro and not letting her character be demeaned. She doesn’t get to kick ass in the way that Pam Grier used to do, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The film’s main problem is the rest of the supporting cast, who are all over the place. Some actors seem to understand what the film is going for, but guys like Tommy Davidson and Arsenio Hall seem to think they’re appearing in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka 2. Also, the final sequence goes a bit over the top, even by the standard for silliness which the preceding 80 minutes had set; I didn’t hate it, but I would have been perfectly happy if the movie had ended on Kung Fu Island. Yes, Black Dynamite travels to a place called Kung Fu Island, and he’s not going there to debate affirmative action with William F. Buckley, y’dig?
What really struck me about Black Dynamite is what it says about today. Sure, the 1970s clothes and hairstyles are long gone, but think about it: is it better to be a black hero now, or then? Samuel L. Jackson’s films have grossed more than any other black actor, but the cruelest irony about the Shaft remake is that while Jackson tells us he has a duty to please the booty, he doesn’t even get to kiss someone. I haven’t seen every single entry on Jackson’s prolific resume, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Black Dynamite beds more women on-screen in this one movie than Jackson has in his entire career.
The only thing that has really thrived from those older films is the idea of cockiness in its hero. Prior to the blaxpoitation craze, the best that black actors could hope for was a slow burn, where the character may be outraged but the actor played it down throughout the film. Richard Roundtree in Shaft introduced the idea of a confident black hero, who acts out against “The Man” with sarcasm, disdain, and even outright anger. It’s the one place where blaxploitation heroes achieved true equality for future generations; if anything, White’s bravado as Black Dynamite seems kind of tame compared to, say, Wesley Snipes.
Speaking of Snipes, I got to watch Passenger 57 recently, for the first time in a long time, and it struck me as a neo-blaxpoitation picture. The angry hero proficient with both the gun and the spin kick, the bigoted Louisiana cops who get in his way, the even more racist white villain, the comic-relief white sidekick (Tom Sizemore!), the funky Stanley Clarke score … it all carries a similar impression, especially since it arrived six months after the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The difference was that Snipes’ film was too slick, too much like Die Hard and the other big action pictures of the day. On the one hand, that’s a good thing, because few black actors before Snipes could command that kind of big-budget slickness. On the other hand, the blaxploitation films developed a kind of charm exactly because they didn’t have those resources available. When I first watched Black Belt Jones, it seemed as if the crew was saying to the audience, “this thing may not always work, but we’re doing it the only way we have.” I love Black Dynamite because it captures that same feel, and I hope you do too.
Reviewed by Mark Young
[I originally wrote a slightly different version of this review last year for the website Murmur.com.]