Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders
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Black Dynamite is far from the first blaxploitation parody, but it’s unique among them. Instead of merely spoofing blaxploitation conventions, the film is shot to look exactly like a low-budget 1974 black exploitation movie. In that respect, it has more in common with ambitious genre pastiches like Grindhouse, The Good German, and Far From Heaven than I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Co-writer/director Scott Sanders “sampled” footage from ’70s blaxploitation movies and detective shows to give the film authentic period grit. The film was financed in a backward fashion: Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White shot a trailer using “sampled” footage, then raised money to write a script and make a movie based on a trailer that quickly became a YouTube favorite. Black Dynamite was a big winner at Sundance earlier this year, and it promises to make a cult hero out of White, who played Mike Tyson in the well-received 1995 television movie Tyson, and the title character in the 1997 superhero movie Spawn. The A.V. Club recently spoke to Sanders and White about making a film with no script, the checklist of clichés found in every blaxploitation movie, and the suspiciously vague nature of blaxploitation-hero day jobs.
The A.V. Club: The cultural specificity of Black Dynamite is terrific. It isn’t just a blaxploitation parody, and it isn’t Superfly or Shaft. It seems more focused on the second and third tier. Was that what you were going for?
Michael Jai White: Pretty much. We wanted to do justice to the majority of them. At least 98 percent of them have basically a checklist they work through. There’s the conspiracy theory. There’s white people depicted poolside. There’s the chase scene. There’s the unusually high death count, with people shooting people in the streets with absolutely no regard for the police.
Scott Sanders: There’s the militants, fewer than five of them, in a small room, plotting to overthrow the entire government.
MJW: There are the terrible chase scenes where you know when it’s set up for some crash, because it’s some desolate area. And then there’s also the defying-gravity thing. If you’re shot in the stomach, you fall forward, that kind of thing. And the corruption that goes all the way to the top.
AVC: Blaxploitation movies seem to intentionally violate almost every rule taught in film school.
MJW: Absolutely, yeah. There’s the terrible expositional dialogue that you see in current movies. I mean, I love the movie Taken, but the dialogue in the beginning of that movie is hilarious. They’re talking, these commando types, and there’s dialogue like, “Hopefully your daughter appreciates what you’re doing for her. Does she know that you’re doing it?” What guys talk like this? It was a long stretch of dialogue that was expositional, that I’m going, “Man, this is like Black Dynamite. We did this on purpose, and they’re really doing it.”
SS: In the beginning of Dolemite, they have expositional scenes that went nowhere. It’d be a whole expositional rant about something they never referred to again. So it wasn’t even to set anything up. “Now, I know your cousin did this when he went to the store…” And then there’s no reference to it again.
AVC: How did the film come about?
MJW: I came up with this idea when I was in Bulgaria, listening to James Brown’s “Super Bad.” That was actually the original name of the movie. And the character was going to be Superbad, but there was another movie that beat us to it, though its name had nothing to do with the movie. I still don’t understand why. So I underwent my own photo shoot, as the character, in the same outfit that’s in the poster, same pose and everything. That, incidentally, is the image that Scott saw when we reconnected about another movie. That picture pretty much sets up the tone of the movie. He explains it really well.
SS: The picture established the tone: He’s got the gun, and then the nunchuks, but the nunchuks are a little excessive. It’s just a little too badass. That’s the tone of the movie. Our humor comes from the fact that the movie is just a little too badass. So we got together and shot a fake trailer using old blaxploitation footage, using old voiceover from Adolph Caesar, who did all the voiceovers for all the blaxploitation movies, and we gave it to a producer we had worked with, Jon Steingart, who’s also a good friend of mine. I showed it to Jon, and he goes, “Well, why are you showing me this old blaxploitation movie trailer?” I was like, “That’s Mike.” And he’s like, “Oh my God. Okay, we can raise the money for this.” And that’s how it started. We raised the money, and had to write a script, and got it going.
AVC: So you had a trailer for a film that did not exist.
SS: It’s still on YouTube.
AVC: Have you heard of a film getting financed that way before?
SS: Machete? Hasn’t been made yet, but other than that, not really. I think it’s a great way to do it, because you’re starting at the end. Somebody has to sell the movie. How else is a movie going to get sold? If you can’t make a great trailer out of it, then it’s probably going to be a long road.
MJW: It shows the end result, but it was so necessary to explain the tone. It’s really hard to sell an intangible. If I only relied on my description, if you’ve not grown up with these films, you may have I’m Gonna Git You Sucka in your mind. Or you might have some other kind of thing, because you have to reference it in some fashion. Until I really show you, it’s hard to see where that tone is. And so we needed that type of stuff to wrangle, and to make everybody understand where that line is, and where the tone lies.
SS: People in Hollywood have been talking about doing remakes, so their mind wasn’t off blaxploitation. They’re like, “Let’s make a remake with this. And let’s do this with this.” And it was never just the bulls-eye. It was never like, “Let’s just make one set in the ’70s, just like one of those, and play with that.” So we’re the only ones like it. And even now, people are like, “Why isn’t it set in the present?” It’s like, “No.” [Laughs.] People can’t seem to get their head around doing the movie, period. They ask, “Why didn’t you do it the other way?” It’s like, “Well, you’re talking to me because we shot it this way.” We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t done it in the way that seems the absolute most obvious way to do it.
AVC: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka covers a lot of the same territory, but it’s set in the present.
MJW: It’s pretty different. There’s jokes that are canonical to the ’70s in it, though.
SS: I’m Gonna Git You Sucka is about older people holding onto their 1970s past. That’s the crux of the humor of it. We look at blaxploitation as a super-specific genre, and I think the vast majority of people look at it as a very loose genre.
MJW: There’s people saying that Jackie Brown was a blaxploitation movie, when there’s nothing at all blaxploitation about it other than Pam Grier being in it.
SS: Clint Eastwood was in a lot of Westerns. Therefore, Gran Torino is a Western. We get people saying, “Well, you know, actually,” and they’ll just name any black movie, “is a blaxploitation movie.”
MJW: They make it synonymous with bad black movies.
SS: Or any black movie with hip-hop. Boyz N The Hood is blaxploitation? No, Boyz N The Hood is Boyz N The Hood. That’s a specific genre. Boyz N The Hood is the same thing as South Central. There’s a whole bunch of things that are hood movies.
AVC: Blaxploitation movies already veer regularly into self-parody. Did you worry that would make them less ripe for spoofing?
MJW: The weird thing is that the blaxploitation tag came later. They were just really good movies that were successful, and therefore they were exploited. They were really good movies, like The Mack and Shaft, and then Hollywood said, “This is a cash cow. Let’s put a quarter of the budget into these movies and have high body counts and all this other exploitive stuff, and get people to the theaters.” Thus, blaxploitation was born. However, there are very good films that were done throughout that era that got, unfortunately, grouped into this blaxploitation genre. This is a very specific thing, like a disco movie. And so it’s this period between ’71 and basically ’75, that ended with the whole disco era, and unfortunately, there are some bad movies that seem to get the lion’s share of the identity. Which is really sad, because you don’t do that with John Hughes movies, or anything else like that.
SS: Or with Westerns. I mean, how many just raw, B-Westerns…
MJW: Bad Westerns. But it’s not westploitation.
AVC: The word blaxploitation has a bit of a negative connotation.
MJW: One of the things that is more constant with all of them is that it was taking advantage of these very disenfranchised people, and giving them this outlet for their anger. It was a form of overcompensation for being oppressed. And then you see this unusually high white body count that would happen. You can call that exploitive in certain cases. So just for the sake of not having another word that moves your sentence along, we have to use the word “blaxploitation” to get the idea of the time period.
AVC: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is an interesting film in the sense that it launched this whole wave, and also features a black male protagonist who is sexually potent in almost a cartoonish fashion.
MJW: Oh, goodness, yes. You couldn’t do a movie like that again.
SS: “What kind of weapons do you want to fight with?” “Sex.” “Okay.” [Laughs.]
MJW: They ask him what his job is and he goes, “Fuckin’.”
SS: Look at the white chicks you could have sex with!
MJW: And then the white leader chick has a fuck-off with him. And it’s like, “Wow. Are you kidding me?”
SS: It’s just a wild rhythm. That’s another thing, a subtextual thing, just the wild, we-don’t-care rhythm of storytelling. One of the things a good blaxploitation movie has is: What does your hero actually do as a job? What does Black Dynamite do? He used to work at the CIA, but now he’s kind of friends with somebody who has a brothel, and then he has an office where he writes papers in the back. But he’s basically just a badass. It doesn’t matter what he does. Those are basic questions about a character in a movie. What does he do? What’s his job? Doesn’t matter.
AVC: Sweet Sweetback was officially endorsed by The Black Panther Party, but it seems like the genre got much less political as time went on.
SS: Yeah. We actually sampled movies while making Black Dynamite. We got the rights to three movies, The Dynamite Brothers, Black Heat, and this movie called Mean Mother. If you want to take the words “black exploitation,” Mean Mother is that movie. It was the product of an Italian company that made an Italian movie. They took the main actor, had him do a couple of scenes with a black guy, sandwiched the black-guy scenes on the ends, and that’s Mean Mother. Can you imagine people in the hood or whatever, at that time, wanting to see a blaxploitation movie, and then getting that? If there was any movie that defines blaxploitation, I mean literally defines black exploitation, it would be Mean Mother.
MJW: What you’re saying reminds me of the Godzilla movie with Raymond Burr. Just stick Raymond Burr in there, and all of a sudden it’s an American movie? Okay. Sure.
AVC: How did the idea of sampling movies come about?
SS: That’s what we did in the trailer, and it worked. So we didn’t have a lot of money to make the movie, and Mike was off writing all kinds of crazy stuff, and I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to get this in the film. One of the ways was sampling. And we bought a lot of footage from Sony, who has this huge library of stuff, and then we sold the movie to Sony later, which is weird, because we’re sampling their footage, and then they bought it. But we have stuff from Charlie’s Angels, and Police Woman, Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action. When people get that it’s obviously stock footage, that’s fine, but we were trying to say, “Okay, let’s try to match it, not be so crazy obvious about it.” But it’s a really fun thing to do. It feels musical. It feels like you’re sampling stuff, and then you’re throwing in something from somewhere else, and it’s a lot of fun.
AVC: What was the writing process for Black Dynamite like?
MJW: We would get together and talk about the outline. Once we agreed on the outline, then it was just making the connective tissue. Because the idea was with me for a long time, just myself and Byron Minns, who also plays Bullhorn. Byron had an encyclopedic knowledge of the blaxploitation genre. He can perform monologues from blaxploitation movies without studying. He just had them so ingrained in him. I had to really fight to catch up to his knowledge, and still there’s going to be things that he’s going to remember, because it gestated with him for quite a while, so we would then make sure and go about acting through the scenes to make sure they feel right as we’re writing them. We tore through it pretty quick. In about two and a half weeks, we were pretty much there.
AVC: Michael, had you written before this?
MJW: Yeah. I’ve sold scripts in the past, and also a TV pilot that didn’t get made, to Fox. But yeah, I’ve been writing for a while. With Black Dynamite, the money was coming regardless of a script. Of course there was going to be a script, but the money came before the script was done.
SS: Scripts are hard, because people have to do a lot of imagining. When you send in a little YouTube clip, they get it in a way that’s more powerful. Scripts are very important. They’re the most important thing, but in terms of just planting images and ideas in people’s heads, it’s not a really good tool, because most people aren’t that imaginative. It’s a different experience, reading a script.
MJW: We pretty much got every line that was in the trailer in the movie. We created it that way. I tried to craft the script, because that trailer was so well known, I started legitimizing the trailer by creating scenes that actually encompassed those lines.