Black Dynamite: A Blaxploitation Parody as Loving as It Is Hilarious

Movies Features Blaxploitation
Black Dynamite: A Blaxploitation Parody as Loving as It Is Hilarious

To me, Michael Jai White will always be Black Dynamite. The masterful physical performer is a DTV action staple, putting out three to five bonecrunchers a year. He’s the first Black actor to ever bring a comic superhero to the big screen, back with 1997’s Spawn. But White’s legacy was established through the loving, hilarious parody of all things Blaxploitation that I saw back in 2009: Black Dynamite.

White’s collaboration with filmmaker Scott Sanders inspired an Adult Swim show and filled the heads of cultish fans with quotable lines. As its spiritual sequel Outlaw Johnny Black takes White’s era-obsessed silliness to the world of Westerns (now with White in the director’s chair), I rewatched Black Dynamite and found that the comedy didn’t just hold up, but revealed itself to be one of the best parodies of the 21st century. Its craftsmanship only now hit me, though the film threw that shit long before it walked in the room.

As Nathan Rabin noted in his 2009 write-up of Black Dynamite, “Instead of merely spoofing blaxploitation conventions, the film is shot to look exactly like a low-budget 1974 black exploitation movie.” He was right: Aside from a few pick-ups filmed on 35mm or shot digitally, cinematographer Shawn Maurer did the whole thing in 16mm, going the extra mile to get the textured grain and saturated colors of the ‘70s. The opening advertisement for Anaconda Malt Liquor was shot on Super 8 in the foyer of editor/composer Adrian Younge’s house. 

Younge (who had been DJing with Sanders for nearly a decade when he got the gig) recorded the amazing, exposition-heavy soundtrack to tape on vintage equipment (a dbx 160 compressor and a reissue Universal Audio 1176) to get that bright ‘70s timbre. Younge’s amazing lyrics to the running, narrating, Foxy Brown-like songs (“So when you see him don’t have shit to say / He beat the devil with a shovel three times a day”) are quintessential Blaxploitation. 

I belly laugh every single time that silence breaks and we hear LaVan Davis wail, “I can’t believe my little brother is passed away,” on the track “Jimmy’s Dead” (a reference to Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” from Super Fly). Only some of that laughter is due to remembering that a mother named her children “Jimmy” and “Black Dynamite.”

So yes, silly as it is, Black Dynamite is built on a powerful, skillful foundation. The look is right. The sound is even better. Those polyester pimp suits? They were done by none other than Oscar-winning legend Ruth E. Carter.

These could seem like esoteric creative flourishes, but like so many of Black Dynamite’s details, they create an atmosphere of passionate authenticity that has helped it outlast its peers.

Released over two decades after 1988’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka went after a similar Blaxploitation target, Black Dynamite was far enough removed from its genre’s heyday that it couldn’t rely on audience familiarity with specific stars. It couldn’t, like I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, simply cast Truck Turner’s Isaac Hayes, Foxy Brown’s Antonio Fargas and Jim goddamn Brown, and call it a day.

For 2009 audiences, Black Dynamite needed to effectively recreate the lo-fi ‘70s, painstakingly reminding those who knew the era and transporting the rest of us. Black Dynamite plays its recreation completely straight, avoiding the easy cop-outs of cameos—its jokes are far more specific (and funny) than the Wayans’ low-hanging schtick—and devoting itself to the difficult task of period-perfect immersion. With that devotion, the movie avoids intentionally jarring us with aged faces or references we’re supposed to recognize, and allows us to sink into the silky, scuzzy pseudo-’70s.

That desire for authenticity, and the genuine affection it grew from, was with Black Dynamite from the very beginning. Inspired by White’s long-running Blaxploitation movie nights, James Brown’s “Super Bad” and a rented denim suit, Black Dynamite was born as a piecemeal collage that just happened to be hilarious. White, a connoisseur of Blaxploitation who nearly turned his appreciation for the genre into a documentary, had edited together moments from these movies representative of the style: Amateurish acting, shoddy filmmaking, gaudy costumes, inconsistent continuity, over-the-top dialogue, hilariously badass protagonists.

All of these examples of the handmade, half-professional aesthetic of ‘70s schlock made their way into Black Dynamite: Someone bumps the camera; an actor takes just a beat too long to say her line; a brothel madam takes a fake drag on a clearly unlit cigarette; Dynamite stands up too fast, bumping his Afro right into a visible boom mic. A helpful IMDb Goof contributor notes that, in one scene, Black Dynamite fires 18 shots from his revolver. These moments are the meat-and-potatoes gags the team focused on including in their ridiculous replica.

White’s video lookbook compiling these kinds of moments, combined with a photo he took of himself that ended up (suit and all) being recreated for Black Dynamite’s poster, was all it took to convince Sanders. White, Sanders and Younge used that inspiration to cut together a proof-of-concept trailer mashing up real Blaxploitation movies with their own Super 8 footage, which they then used to finance the movie:

This technique continued in the actual feature. Not only is there actual footage from era-appropriate media (Charlie’s Angels, Police Woman, the pilot for Matt Helm, Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action) inserted into the final product, some moments were more inspired by this historical digging than by the actual writing process. A scene where Black Dynamite kills a drug kingpin by picking up his car with a giant magnet dangling from a helicopter wasn’t in the script at all—it was just footage Younge found that the team thought was too good to ignore.

But what the Black Dynamite team did write was by-the-book Blaxploitation. A tight 76 minutes before credits, the film takes us everywhere from back alleys to Kung Fu Island to the White House itself. The style is classic Shaft, Coffy and especially Dolemite, but its box-checking plot was closest in its big moments to something like Three the Hard Way, where a racist scientist creates a poison that only affects Black people. The film even has the weird, atonal moral reversal that so many movies tacked onto their endings so that their antiheroes were able to make it past the censors and get to audiences in the first place.

White, Sanders and Blaxploitation obsessive Byron Minns penned the script, meshing together perfect pastiche (like Bullhorn, played by Minns, who speaks in the rhyming couplets Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite made famous), absurdly funny lines (“I used to be an orphan”) and the political contradictions of empowerment and exploitation that its genre encapsulated.

Black Dynamite’s entire premise is based around Blaxploitation’s over-the-top blend of hyper-violence and hyper-sexuality that allowed its Black men to reclaim the racist Buck stereotype. He’s a sex machine and a kung fu killer—all performed with go-for-broke intensity and beautiful sincerity by White. The nudity is gratuitous enough for noted titty buff Roger Ebert (“the most beautiful naturally occurring shapes in nature, I believe,” his review reads) and the fight choreography is genuinely good, even when it’s just sex workers running around karate chopping the air, because it was figured out by actual action stars.

Once we get deeper into his character, we learn that Black Dynamite is haunted by the specter of his decade, the Vietnam War. It uses this grounding period detail to grapple with the casual racism pervading some Blaxploitation films that incorporated chopsocky elements, aiming to exploit the martial arts prowess of Jim Kelly. Recalling his time in Vietnam, Black Dynamite says “Chinese” about a hundred times when describing a mutilated Vietnamese child. And that’s before he does a little racist impression of an Asian language. This moment—and the trip to Kung Fu Island, where Black Dynamite squares off against the Fiendish Dr. Wu (Roger Yuan, who’s been doing action with White since Spawn)—shades the movie’s throwback vibe with appropriate problematic nuance, all in service of a more representative snapshot of an era. Black Dynamite is woke and militant, yet he’s still a product of his time.

Speaking to that complexity, Black Dynamite cares about the Black community’s health so deeply that he’ll go back to working with the CIA…until he’s inevitably betrayed by the white-dominated system—a balance between singular badassery (getting a license to kill) and omnipresent oppression (being punished for working for the government).

Naturally Black Dynamite’s conspiracy goes all the way to the top, highlighting the righteous distrust of The Man that pervaded Blaxploitation, but then it juices it all the way up into a nunchuck-fight with Richard Nixon. That description makes it sound like those terrible, cringeworthy, pseudo-epic online images of Teddy Roosevelt riding a bear into battle, but because it is so rooted in the genre’s history, it’s just a good joke.

This holds true for my favorite scene, where Black Dynamite and crew figure out the nefarious scheme in the most convoluted fashion possible. It’s one of my favorite takedowns of conspiracy narratives ever filmed, touching on clues ranging from the slogan and creators of M&Ms, to Greco-Roman mythology, to area codes, to the “Architect of Rock and Roll” himself. Any scene that allows a performer to say “Asclepius, of course,” is a good scene in my book:

But it’s not just silly, and not just a bit that gets more mileage out of going on too long. Those who’ve seen Dolemite know that these ridiculous tangents aren’t a modern invention, but a Blaxploitation staple: Consider the long scene where Dolemite rhymingly recounts the fate of the Titanic (“The captain and the lieutenant was havin’ a few words / when the great Titanic hit that mighty iceberg”) just because he can. The Black Dynamite scene is funny on its surface, but it’s deceptively savvy, historically-minded filmmaking.

Like this moment, there are plenty of jokes just for the diehards who saw Black Dynamite’s original trailer (where Black Dynamite isn’t played by White, but rather “all-star running back Ferrante Jones,” an homage to athlete-actor Jim Brown), or those with a working knowledge of screenplays. A Panther-like militant won’t stop delivering the stage directions in front of his lines (“Sarcastically, I’m in charge”), which sounds like total nonsense unless you’ve ever seen script pages. The dedication to maintaining the illusion that Black Dynamite is a comedy and a bonafide ‘70s creation that’s been unearthed decades later allows for layers of satire. It’s not just a stylistic parody, but a sly meta-movie—a send-up of an entire mode and era of production.

Black Dynamite is more than just its best lines. It is more than “I threw that shit before I walked in the room,” a line apparently influenced by a story Ice-T told White (what that story could be about, I truly have no idea). It’s more than its collection of pimps and pushers that includes Arsenio Hall’s Tasty Freeze, Bokeem Woodbine’s Back Hand Jack and Cedric Yarbrough’s Chocolate Giddy-Up (he sells drugs to the community). It is even more than Captain Kangaroo Pimp, who sits there, silent and uncredited. Black Dynamite is a perfect storm of genre enthusiasts so deftly reenacting their subject matter that they create a movie that is both hilarious satire and platonic ideal. What Walk Hard did for musician biopics and This Is Spinal Tap did for the rock doc, Black Dynamite did for Blaxploitation.

Now, as we approach the 15th anniversary of Black Dynamite’s Sundance premiere, its impact is clear. Sure, there’s the spin-off series and the legion of diehard fans that includes, as White told us, actors like Jason Clarke (“He just starts yelling all these Black Dynamite lines at me”). But it’s also beginning to influence the next generation of filmmakers wishing to pay tribute to those that came before them. Just watch this year’s They Cloned Tyrone, which features a similarly sinister throwback plot and tips its hat to Black Dynamite by having John Boyega’s character buying forties of Anaconda Malt Liquor. A flash in the pan parody wouldn’t have this staying power. A comedy without its underlying substance would’ve faded into obscurity. But Black Dynamite stands tall, in full Cinemaphonic Quadrovision. A true sequel is still allegedly in the works from White’s Jaigantic Studios, but it don’t make me no nevermind: We have Black Dynamite, and that’s a Blaxploitation miracle.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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