Michael Jai White is the rarest kind of artist—the kind who makes profoundly silly movies for the most discerning of palates. The star of 2009 cult classic blaxploitation satire Black Dynamite and director of its upcoming follow-up The Outlaw Johnny Black, White cuts an imposing figure, even as he celebrated his 50th birthday back in November. He’s had a lengthy career full of groundbreaking firsts—it’s far too easy to forget that this guy was the first black actor to ever portray a major comic book superhero in a major motion picture when he took the lead role in 1997’s Spawn. As an actor, he’s been overlooked by the Hollywood mainstream, while simultaneously building a massive fandom of genre movie fans with projects like Blood and Bone, Undisputed II or Mortal Kombat: Legacy.
And when we say “massive,” that’s no hyperbole. Michael Jai White’s online following is huge, spread across a network of highly engaged social media profiles. The guy has almost 5 million Facebook followers, comparable to most of the cast members of The Avengers. He has the same number of followers as the official page for Seinfeld, and a million more than Chris Pratt.
Think about that for a second. Michael Jai White, of Black Dynamite, has 25 percent more Facebook fans than the star of Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World and The Lego Movie. That’s how popular the actor is among consumers of independent action films and bone-crunching martial arts movies—he’s nothing less than royalty in that world.
And now, the time has come for White to reach out directly to that fanbase in the making of The Outlaw Johnny Black. The director’s first crowdfunded feature just kicked off its IndieGoGo campaign, seeking an eye-popping $2 million for the film’s production. Described as a spiritual (if not direct) follow-up to Black Dynamite, it takes similar aim at black ’70s westerns such as Buck and The Preacher, with more than a little Sergio Leone thrown in for good measure. It’s the payoff to a long-awaited concept that White conceived more than a decade ago: A trilogy of interconnected ’70s film parodies, each of which would feature the same cast but tackle a different genre.
“This one will be paying loving homage to the blaxploitation-era westerns,” said White, speaking with Paste a day before the launch of the crowdfunding campaign. “We also had an idea to do a foray into the horror genre. It’s always been my plan to come back to the trilogy, but I’ve been playing a global chess game, doing films abroad and getting to a place where I can be solvent with my own brand. Now is that time; it’s the time to launch this grand experiment to mobilize the fanbase. I chose this movie to do that with because the word of mouth around Black Dynamite has been huge for me, especially overseas.”
The humor value of the concept at least partially revolves around its unexpected complexity. It’s easy to enjoy Black Dynamite at face value, but also easy to miss that the film is essentially an experiment at multiple levels of satire at once. The character of “Black Dynamite” isn’t one being played by Michael Jai White, Hollywood actor. Rather, it’s being played by “all-star running back Ferrante Jones,” a loving parody of football star-turned ’70s leading man Jim Brown. This is true of everyone in Black Dynamite: Female lead Salli Richardson is “Ebony Fashion Fair Model Tambula Qatar.” Supporting actor Kevin Chapman is “Ronnie Sinatra.” The performances are rendered with these multiple layers of characterization in mind, which goes a step deeper once the same “actors” are transplanted to The Outlaw Johnny Black. It’s an exceedingly meta, multi-film exercise in celebrating the hallmarks of ’70s cinema.
With Ronnie Sinatra!
“In the world of the film, the true stars of Black Dynamite would be the writers of the film who thought they were creating this character who was badder than Shaft and Super Fly and all of them,” explains White. “It’s really the transparency of their writing and tone that makes the whole thing work. So, you can imagine what would happen if those writers and that company had success with Black Dynamite; they choose to make another movie with the same cast and foray into the Western genre. It’s sort of like Monty Python, going from Holy Grail to Life of Brian.”
You can feel White’s passion for the culture of the ’70s in particular when he speaks, nostalgia for the decade of his childhood, which he calls “a more unfiltered time.” Like Black Dynamite, he describes The Outlaw Johnny Black as a film light on structure and heavy on crowd-pleasing moments, or in his own words, “a whole lot of ass-whuppin’.”
“Most of the classic westerns are good guys vs. bad guys with very clear, linear tones,” he said. “It’s somewhat an homage to the revenge western, where the gunslinger wants to hang up his guns, but he has to do right by the townsfolk first.”
Despite having a very supportive fanbase, this is White’s first experience with crowdfunding for a film. The $2 million goal is a fairly imposing one—not quite the record-breaking amounts hauled in by the Veronica Mars feature film or Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, which both reached around $6 million—but vastly more than most independent film or TV projects. The backer prizes, here called “bounties,” are numerous—everything from behind-the-scenes updates on the production to the chance to engage in a literal fight scene with “Outlaw Johnny Black” for $100,000. White, however, is confident that this route will produce the most success.
“Even though I’ve had many offers from companies to fully finance this movie, I chose to do it this way regardless in order to bring it closer to the fans who put me where I am,” he said. “I want to give those fans a once-in-a-lifetime experience to actually be part of the making of a film, to know what really goes into it and see behind-the-scenes content. I think nowadays a lot of studios are very far removed from the fanbase; it’s become an increasingly wide disconnect. I’m so grateful for the existence of social media and our use of it as a tool to mobilize these huge groups of fans who want to embrace new independent films and new art.”
Nailing the point home, White added the following: “Studios aren’t in the business of taking risk. If it’s in my power, I want to create a brand that people will identify with by giving them the same experience I grew up with. The ’70s, I think, were the best era for American film—people had a voice and they dared to say something. Black Dynamite made you feel like you were in that era, much like one of my favorite programs of the last few years, Stranger Things.”
If all goes well, White will seek to start production on The Outlaw Johnny Black following the completion of the Indiegogo campaign, making the film the first release from his new Jaigantic Studios production company. According to the founder, the studio won’t only be a vehicle for new Michael Jai White movies, either—films of all kinds of genres and budgets are already on the slate, whether or not they star White.
“We’ll absolutely be producing films I’m not in, and I think that will play to my strengths as a producer,” he said. “We have a slate of films for this year already. Outlaw Johnny Black I want to do directly with the fans, but there are also some very global movies lined up under this studio and brand with budgets in excess of $50 million. You’re going to see quite a bit coming out of Jaigantic very soon.”
“Where heroes rise.”
The Outlaw Johnny Black crowdfunding campaign is now live, and can be viewed here. Of course, being a Black Dynamite fan myself, I couldn’t let White go without posing one last question: What’s the random quote that people throw at you on the street most often?
“I get ‘I am smiling’ a lot, but especially ‘I threw that shit before I walked in the room!’” says a chuckling White. “There’s quite a few lines people say to me. I was directing a movie in Thailand, and Jason Clarke from Terminator Genisys and a bunch of other movies, he found out I was Black Dynamite. He was doing another movie with Blake Lively and staying at the same hotel. So he sees me at breakfast time at the hotel buffet and he just starts yelling all these Black Dynamite lines at me. It was scaring all the workers because they had no idea what he was yelling about.”
Below, check out the full The Outlaw Johnny Black poster.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.