Out for Justice
Michael Jai White takes the law into his own hands in the rock-solid, hilariously entertaining Black Dynamite
Everything about Black Dynamite adores its 1970s-era inspiration, and nothing is played for a cheap, condescending joke. You know the moustaches are manly because they're thicker than shag carpeting. Both men and women rock afros that add five inches to their height. The fashions--from men's suits in kinetic fresh-peach and electric-blue hues to women's flared-leg floral-print pantsuits--are fierce and fabulous, and the trench coats are full-length, black, and leather. The cars are American-made gas guzzlers, the music is getting-freaky funk. The women are super fine, the men badass. The villains are affluent corporate white men in suits taking the people's money with one hand while pushing drugs with the other. The lawmen are corrupt, the community is under siege, and the government is not on your side. Yes, Black Dynamite is without a doubt a blaxploitation homage.
What sets it apart from latter-day blaxpoloitation satires/parodies such as Keenen Ivory Wayans' broad 1988 comedy I'm Gonna Git You Sucka and 2001's nearly Dadaist media metaficiton Pootie Tang is an absolute reverence to the form. Black Dynamite doesn't just have the superficial fashions of the '70s genre, it embraces every iota of the style. The titular hero (the pneumatically buff and martial-arts savvy Michael Jai White) is a kung-fu fighting Vietnam vet and former CIA op who is going to turn the Los Angeles ghetto upside down looking for the people who murdered his brother. En route, he meets his fair share of foxy ladies, a group of militants looking to get the smack out of the orphanage--because orphans don't have parents--and a political machine tied up in dodgy activities.
As co-written by White, actor Byron Minns, and director Scott Sanders, Dynamite also embraces blaxploitation's visual look and film language. The movie feels like it was shot on a modest budget and on a brisk shooting schedule, and the final result looks like older film stock on the screen. Better yet, it's told in blaxploitation's frenetic visual style: whip pans, quick zooms, iris fades, split-screens, and sequences of awkward continuity abound. And the fight scenes feature slightly stiff kung-fu choreography, redolent of an era before the ballet-like grace of wire-work action scenes popularized by Hong Kong cinema.
All of which makes Black Dynamite an engaging feat, treating films of the era as an all-encompassing aesthetic--and it does it while poking holes in the genre's conventions by pushing them beyond the ludicrous. Characters' names are tongue-in-cheek sarcastic--from pimps such as Tommy Davidson's Cream Corn and Mykelti Williamson's Chicago Wind to Dionne Gibson's singer Afroditey and a lady of the evening named Euphoria (Nakia Syvonne)--and the dialogue is chock-full of nonsensical one-liners and absurd turns of phrase. The script is a nearly non-stop source of jokes and wordplay: Dynamite's final reel explication of the central con going on in the movie involves a creative interpretation of Greek and Roman mythology, common slang, and double entendres that is as much a send-up of obtuse symbolism interpretation as it is the cliché of investigative deduction.
And somehow, White plays Dynamite with a macho sobriety that carries the entire movie, and he does it wearing tight pants and high-kicking his enemies. He's better known for his movie fighting skills, but here he gets to have a blast overacting while looking like he's trying not to: He delivers lines such as "you diabolical dick-shrinking motherfuckers" without ever winking at the camera, and it's an impressive display of taking the ridiculous seriously without taking yourself too seriously. He gets to deliver all the good lines and win the ladies and play the hero.
Now, blaxploitation has been the object of jokes and parody almost since its inception. Ralph Bakshi's animated Coonskin turned an acute eye on racial stereotypes, and Dolemite itself pushes the genre conventions well into the absurd. But letting black actors be the onscreen alpha male was also one of blaxploitation's reasons to be. Given the 2000s emergence of Will Smith and Denzel Washington as Hollywood leading men who can carry action flicks, it's a given that such Hollywood success was built on the shoulders of actors such as Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Ron O'Neal, and other stars of the blaxploitation era. And Hollywood did reap the modest rewards of blaxploitation successes: Shaft was distributed by MGM, Super Fly and Cleopatra Jones by Warner Bros., Across 110th Street by United Artists, and Slaughter and Foxy Brown by the B-movie maestro Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures. But the list of black action-hero A-listers also sometimes feels like it only includes Smith and Washington.
A July 29, 2002, Jet cover story titled "Buffed, Bold, and Bad: Hollywood's Black Action Heroes" celebrated men of color in action roles, spotlighting Wesley Snipes, Vin Diesel, and the Rock. The article also accurately cites 1997's Spawn as the first black superhero of the modern era, played by a then 30-year-old White in his first leading role. Ever since, White has primarily played charismatic heavies or supporting players--rarely, if ever, the lead. Prior to Dynamite, his other recent leading role was in the straight-to-DVD Undisputed II, the unnecessary 2006 sequel to Walter Hill's 2002 actioner. So while White's Black Dynamite is a comical send-up of blaxploitation, it's also a bit of a mash-note tribute to black action-flick actors who are always sidelined as the buddy to a Michael Dudikoff or Chuck Norris. And, really now, hard-working character actors such as the late Steve James deserve their props, too.