A COMEDIC HOMAGE TO A 1970S FILMS GENRE
by William Gooch
published May 22, 2009
scheduled to open September 4, 2009
Macho guys in tight knit pants, feisty sistagirls, karate kicks, and corrupt white cops often defined the
black action films of the 1970s. Most African Americans of a certain age are all too familiar with the urban swagger of Fred Williamson,
the athleticism of Jim Kelly, and the in-your-face sexiness of Pam Grier and Gloria Hendry. This film genre—later dubbed blaxploitation by some African American civil rights organizations that felt these films were lacking
in social value—was the first time that African Americans got to see strong black male and female cinematic images that were empowered by
an urban community and not afraid of the establishment. In its own way, blaxploitation films of the 1970s created self-assured, but flawed, black characters that were visually realizing
what black folks were thinking and feeling.
In Black Dynamite, ex-CIA commando Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is out to revenge
the death of brother and rid his hood of drugs that have been pumped into local orphanages. With an urban street swagger and karate moves
that won’t quit, Black Dynamite takes his street-cleaning campaign from the crime-ridden ghetto all the way to hallowed institutions of
This comedic homage to black films of the 70s employs a cohesive storyline and some well-developed characters, which elevates this
film from a series of hip one-liners and screen gags. Unlike Keenan Ivory Wayans’ spoof-heavy I’m
Gonna Get You Sucka, Black Dynamite uses dry humor as its comedic weapon of choice.
Overhead, hanging microphones conjure up images of inexperienced directors; rhythmic double talk and circuitous, urban conspiracy theories
that lead nowhere brings a flashback to street vernacular of the 70s; and cartoonish, overdressed pimps with soaring oratory summon up
images of Antonio Fargas’ “Huggy Bear” from Starsky and Hutch.
Director Scott Sanders borrows heavily from such iconic black action films as Shaft,
Black Belt Jones, and Black Caesar. There are numerous
car chases, badass karate battles, infusions of Black Power rhetoric, as well as comedic images of the crime underworld. Pimps and street
hustlers—though traffickers of street trade and illegal activities—are sometimes benevolent and united against The Man, and madams and
hookers have hearts of gold. By humorously shading these stereotypes with a patina of humanity, Sanders transforms the politically incorrect
into palatable and likable extensions of the urban community.
As Black Dynamite, Michael Jai White gives a tour-de-force performance as the black action hero archetype that
is streetwise, swaying the affections of all women and divining the diabolical maneuvers of 'The Man.' White’s dry, tongue-in-cheek delivery works well in this parody because you never take his character too seriously. Every karate battle ends with a lackadaisical, blank shrug; breadcrumb clues easily lead to diabolical crimes; intimacy is as
simple and easy as changing shirts.
Above all, Black Dynamite is an ensemble effort. Standouts in the cast are Salli
Richardson-Whitfield (Gloria) as the militant Angela Davis–type sistagirl; Phil Morris (Saheed) as a black panther–type community leader;
Arsenio Hall as the pimp, Tasty Freeze; Byron Minns as Black Dynamite’s sidekick, Bullhorn; and Tommy Davidson as the smooth-talking
hustler, Cream Corn, who injects the perfect balance of humor and absurdity into all his scenes.
Blaxploitation films have often been relegated to the sidelines as an embarrassing, irrelevant genre that took the image of
African Americans backward. Black Dynamite does not seek to correct that opinion. What Black Dynamite does do is use laughter as a way to pay tribute to a genre that was, if nothing else,
entertaining. And maybe through the laughter, we can re-examine this genre as part of the
evolutionary continuum in black cinema.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read the panel discussion with Black Dynamite actor/writer Michael Jai White and director Scott Sanders