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“Fiendish Doctor Wu, you done fucked up now.” —Black Dynamite
Shameful confession: It took me some time to catch up with Black Dynamite, co-writer/star Michael Jai White and director Scott Sanders’ inspired send-up of blaxploitation movies. Though word was positive on balance—critical consensus pegged it as a clever film that overstayed its welcome, even at 84 minutes—two related thoughts kept me from rushing out during its very brief stay in theaters. One was that blaxploitation spoofs had been done before, to fitfully amusing returns, in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother. The other was that the genre was too easy a target, since so many elements—the afros, platform shoes, and pimp coats; the Z-grade incompetence of the filmmaking; the scripted street lingo; the air of hyper-masculinity; the half-hearted “revolutionary” bent—were poised on the edge of self-parody. Who needs a blaxploitation parody when Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw, and other Rudy Ray Moore vehicles are still out there in all their stupefying glory?
Now that I’ve seen Black Dynamite, it’s clear that I’ve asked the wrong rhetorical question. Because while the film gets the syntax of blaxploitation film hilariously right—it’s like Grindhouse without the fake scratches and jump cuts—and White has the hulking presence of a Jim Brown-like superstud, it would be limiting to call it a parody of the genre. A closer antecedent is something like Wet Hot American Summer, which evokes the ’80s summer camp comedy with fetishistic delight while spinning off into more random, self-conscious, absurdist fits of inspiration. And both owe something to the Airplane! model of spoofery: Playing wittily off the conventions of a disaster movie (or an ’80s camp comedy or a blaxploitation joint) may be critical, but that’s only the spine. The rest is filled in by silliness of all kinds, with an emphasis on a knowing silliness, riffing off the audience’s understanding of the way movies are put together. Airplane! put a driving scene in front of wacky rear projection; Wet Hot American Summer had a slobs-vs.-snobs softball game cancelled for being too hackneyed; and Black Dynamite mocks the gratuity of ’70s split-screens with a shooting scene that cleaves the frame into two halves just because. To zero effect. And that’s just for starters.
Though Sanders’ direction sells many of the jokes on its own, the driving force behind Black Dynamite is White, who conceived of the character and just keeps tacking onto the mythology throughout the film like gaudy additions to a house. (It’s little wonder that the character has spawned a graphic novel and an animated series, too. He’s too big for one movie.) At his essence, White’s Black Dynamite character—that’s the name, by the way, not a nickname—is Jim Brown in Slaughter or Richard Roundtree in Shaft, a stoic, thunder-voiced powerhouse who so embodies black masculinity that he can treat five women to the night of their lives simultaneously. White just keeps adding layer after layer: Black Dynamite as an orphan, as heroic Vietnam veteran, as “the best CIA agent the CIA ever had.” He’s also a kung fu master, a brilliant detective, an expert tactician, and a man whose lovemaking skills are so transcendent, they can only be expressed astrologically.
Black Dynamite has endless fun with the swollen-chested too-muchness of the eponymous character, whose comic obliviousness is Leslie Nielsen-esque. But the script, by Sanders, White, and Byron Minns, also constructs a satisfyingly opaque conspiracy around smack dealers, U.S.-approved malt liquor, and Tricky Dick himself. It starts with the death of Black Dynamite’s brother Jimmy, killed at the hands of drug pushers despite his promise to his mother that he’d keep him off drugs. (A promise reinforced by his Aunt Billy’s constant, parrot-like refrain and an expository flashback that has him slamming his brother against the wall, pleading, “Jimmy, I am 18-year-old Black Dynamite and you’re my 16-year-old kid brother and you are high as a kite yet again!”) With a single bullet casing as his only piece of evidence, Black Dynamite shakes down every lowlife in town looking for answers, and as a mere side effect of his strong-arm tactics, cleans up the streets so thoroughly that a crime-infested urban hellpit gets transformed into Leave It To Beaver country.
Teaming with local weasel/sidekick Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson)—first seen offering a hairdresser an all-time great pickup line, “Stick with me, baby, and I’ll have you farting through silk,” that can claim Robert Mitchum as its source—Black Dynamite beats and nunchucks his way through his street-level adversaries, but there’s a man responsible for the murder. And a man behind the man. And then, simply, The Man, who’s out to destroy the black community—or at least bring its genitals down to size. Black Dynamite also finds a love interest in Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), a Black Power activist who’s trying to keep the orphans off smack, and connects with his squirrely ex-’Nam buddy O’Leary (Kevin Chapman), who’s trying to keep him from spilling “a river of blood.” (“Then tell me who did it, and I’ll just leave a little puddle,” Black Dynamite promises.)
Black Dynamite is clever about exploiting its hero’s overwhelming badassery—his nunchucks always hit their target square in the face—while also taking measure of his equally colossal self-involvement. Everything gets processed through his own epic, heroic existence: He helps orphans because he, too, was an orphan; he interprets the cries of a Vietnamese child as a plea to him personally; he’s given to looking off into the distance and talking as if in conversation with destiny itself. And in this brilliant scene, Black Dynamite takes on a half-circle of kung fu sparring partners and doesn’t care how much abuse he dishes out to them. In my favorite shot of the film, Sanders pans away from Black Dynamite and settles on one of the poor human punching dummies as he scrambles around the mat, desperate to avoid the inevitable ass-kicking.
Of course, like any man of destiny, Black Dynamite has the monologue, his primary tool for self-mythologizing. He talks of fighting and fighting and fighting some more. He decodes an elaborate criminal conspiracy by talking through the 17 connections linking waffles to M&Ms to Greek and Roman mythology to big-ass snakes to a diabolical plan to use malt liquor to shrink dicks. And to prove he’s a man of conscience, too, he launches on a self-serving ’Nam monologue where a little boy of generalized nationality gets absorbed into his grand heroic narrative. Yet we love him all the same.
While it’s easy to poke fun at blaxsploitation movies in the broad strokes, the filmmakers are clearly students of the genre, and do more than merely send up pimp fashion. (Though they’re not above that, either.) Shooting in 16mm, Sanders and his cinematographer, Shawn Maurer, get the look right: The hyper-saturated colors, the sloppily off-kilter camera angles, the weird ’70s zoom-lens and split-screen abuses, the visible boom microphones, and mismatched color timing that makes the footage looks like it was processed at Sears. Sanders also throws in stock footage like an old Roger Corman cheapie, reusing some shots while plugging in action inserts that are obviously lifted from another movie. The score by Adrian Younge serves up the expected wah-wah guitar sounds, but also tosses in lyrics that do nothing more than describe what’s happening in any given scene.
In the late going, Black Dynamite does start to feel like an overextended short feature—it would be perfection at an hour, if only making movies at that length were acceptable. And yet the filmmakers manage to eke a great meta-joke out of the extra padding too, by having its hero abruptly leave the ghetto to battle “the Fiendish Doctor Wu” on some secret hideaway in the middle of the Pacific. All of which feeds the larger-than-life legend of Black Dynamite, a hero whose virility and strength are as fabled as Chuck Norris’ (if we didn’t know Chuck Norris as a miserable pussy). He’s even bigger than the movie that created him.