BLACK DYNAMITE PANEL DISCUSSION
WITH ACTOR/WRITER MICHAEL JAI WHITE AND DIRECTOR SCOTT SANDERS AT THE 2009 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL
reported by William Gooch
published May 8, 2009
not yet rated (but it will probably be R)
scheduled to be released on September 4, 2009
What sparked your interest
in doing this film?
Michael Jai White: I was in
Bulgaria shooting a movie called Undisputed and I was listening to my iPod and on comes James
Brown's “Super Bad,” and then I got this idea for this character. I got back to the States and fleshed out the character, rented some
clothing that was reminiscent of urban fashion from the 1970s, shot some pictures and contacted Scott. We had wanted to work together for so
many years and when I told him about the project his eyes kind of lit up and he jumped on board. Soon after, we shot a
Scott Sanders: We shot a trailer for about $500 and edited
in scenes from other blaxploitation films. We gave the trailer to a friend of ours, John Steingard, and based on the trailer he felt he
could raise the money for the project. That is how it actually came to be.
Did you have any fear at
all with tackling the blaxploitation genre and all the negative connotations that goes with that genre?
Michael Jai White: Not at all. The movies that started that whole genre were quite powerful and the whole blaxploitation
moniker came later. That genre was the first time we had strong representation where there were strong black characters. Before that
time, with a few exceptions, most films represented African Americans in subservient roles. Those characters were far more derogatory
than the blaxploitation characters. As a young man, I was impressed by the black alpha-male characters portrayed by Jim Brown, Fred
Williamson, and Jim Kelly, and those characters were a source of pride for the African American community. White kids also wanted to be
like those characters. It was only later that the exploitive term came into being because Hollywood realized they could make these
movies on a shoestring budget, which resulted in inferior storylines and poorly fleshed out characters. But there were still good films
being made in the genre at that time.
Was there ever any concern
that some of the cultural references from the 1970s would be lost on younger audiences?
Scott Sanders: Younger people today like things that have
an extreme taste. Young folks might look at Black Dynamite they way they look at Borat or another type of comedy.
Michael Jai White: Also, today’s audiences are very sophisticated. One of the things we had to do to maintain the look
and feel of that genre is we couldn’t shoot Black Dynamite with the same pacing you see in
films today. If you look at some movies from the 70s, people brushed their teeth in real time. You don’t see that in cinema now. Our
incident level in current movies is pretty accelerated compared to movies of that time.
Could you talk a little
about casting for Black Dynamite?
A lot of the actors we used were friends of Michael, and we had a great casting director, Rick Montgomery. We tried to have a range of
acting styles, as well.
Why did you put R&B
singer Brian McKnight in the cast?
Michael Jai White: Well, we wanted to think out of the box
and give audiences the opportunity to recognize the people they wouldn’t normally think of as being in this type of film. We thought it
would keep the movie interesting, and Brian was great.
In Black Dynamite every stance or swagger is a pose, almost like choreography,
which is very reminiscent of that genre. Were you conscious of that or did it happen organically?
Michael Jai White: A lot of Black Dynamite is Jim Brown, who is a hero of mine. He was the first black action movie star. We’ve
known each other for over ten years and in some ways he is a surrogate father to me. The man has a brilliant mind. For example, we have
played chess together many times, and I have only beaten him once. Jim Brown knows how to play the hard, strong tough guy well; however,
when he was asked to be warm and fuzzy in movies, it didn’t really come off that well.
Scott Sanders: That is also one of my favorite dynamics in
Black Dynamite. If you notice that when the lead character has to go against grain and be
tender, it looks sappy and doesn’t come off well. [Raucous laughter]
Michael Jai White: I really got that off of Jim Brown.
Anyone who knows Jim Brown knows he is not a really frolicking-in-the-meadow type of guy.
Did you ever consider giving actors like Jim Brown and Fred Williamson cameo roles in the film?
Michael Jai White: No, that would have been a mistake. We
didn’t want to destroy the illusion of Black Dynamite being an authentic 70s
How did you come up with
the brilliant conspiracy dialogue where everyone is sitting in this diner and trying to figure the allusions in a particular malt liquor
Michael Jai White: I remember when I writing that scene, my
wife was looking at me and wondering what was wrong with me because I was having all these starts and stops and talking to myself. I was
like that for an entire day. I fixated on this ridiculous connection that have these crazy conspiracy concepts based on the name of brand
or product. You see it in television comedy shows all the time. Also, conspiracy theories are integral to the blaxploitation genre. The
theorists are always looking at how the government or the white man is secretly trying to annihilate black folks.
Scott Sanders: What is so funny in our film is that the government is not only involved in this conspiracy but they are
also leaving this trail of breadcrumb clues. [Lots
of laughter] People who believe in conspiracy always believe there is a trail of clues;
however, most of the evil that’s done in the world is really done right to your face.
You also put a lot of
rhyming in Black Dynamite. Was talking in rhyme a part of the blaxploitation
Michael Jai White: There was so much rhyming in the 70s. It
was a part of the black vernacular, so to speak.
Could you talk about the
martial arts in Black Dynamite?
Michael Jai White: I have been involved in martial arts
since I was eight years old. The choreography style of martial arts you see in Black Dynamite
is very 70s. One of the styles of martial arts I have a black belt in is called shotokan, and that style of karate was very popular in
blaxploitation films. Rob Ewing and myself choreographed the fights in Black
Did Tommy Davidson do his
own fight scenes?
Scott Sanders: No, a stunt guy named Precious performed
Tommy’s fight scenes. [Lots of raucous
Michael Jai White: I couldn’t believe this stunt guy was
named Precious. I asked him why he didn’t change his name. He shrugged and said that because his grandmother named him that, out of
respect for her, he didn’t change his name.
Could you talk about the
Scott Sanders: The original music came from this young
musician, Adrian Young, who loves 1970s instrumentation. Levan Davis, from Tyler Perry's House of Payne, sings the lead in most
of the songs in Black Dynamite. His voice is kind of reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield and Willie
Hutch. His voice is the key to some of the crazy songs like “Jimmy’s Dead” that has all this wailing. I think Levan could literally sing
the phone book.
Could you talk about Salli Richardson who plays this type of Pam Grier character?
Michael Jai White: She was so wonderful to work with. So
much of the comedy wouldn’t have worked without her presence. She was dead on perfect.
Scott Sanders: She is the best straight woman,
Michael Jai White: I have known Salli for quite a while and
I tried to pick people for Black Dynamite that had that 70s-throwback look. She looks like a
Covergirl model, but also has that sistagirl vibe going.
You have some great
comedians in Black Dynamite. Did they ever go off script, and how did you get Arsenio Hall to
agree to do the movie?
Michael Jai White: When we approached Arsenio, he informed
us that if there was a Captain Kangaroo pimp character in the movie, he was in, [Lots of
laughter] and the rest is history. But to answer your first question, over 90 percent of the film is scripted, but there is some
improv. One of the best improv guys in the world is Cedric Yarborough. His screen time is very short, but very powerful. It is hard to
keep a straight face around him.
Why did you decide to go for a deadpan humor approach instead of making Black
Dynamite a spoof of the blaxploitation genre?
Scott Sanders: We went for the deadpan approach because it
makes the movie more sustainable. Sometimes, when there is too much spoof, the movie ends up just being a set of gags.
Have you ever approached
Wesley Snipes about being in a film of this nature?
Michael Jai White: I had a private screening of the
Black Dynamite trailer at my house and Wesley came over. He loved the film. We extended the
invitation to Wesley to be in the film, but he was dealing with some personal issues at the time. He may do something in the sequel.
What are you working on
Michael Jai White: We have a couple of projects in the
Scott Sanders: There is the project that Michael and I were
going to work on in Brazil before we got started on Black Dynamite. We will also be working on
the comedy Capital Punishment.
Michael Jai White: And of course, the sequel to Black Dynamite.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
photo of Michael Jai White (right) and Scott Sanders (left) is by Ernest Green
read William Gooch's review of Black