Black Dynamite, 2009.
Directed by Scott Sanders.
Starring Michael Jai White, Salli Richardson, Arsenio Hall, Kevin Chapman and Tommy Davidson.
After his brother is killed, the gun-toting, nunchuck-wielding, ladies man and soul brother Black Dynamite sets out for revenge against ‘The Man’.
On November 4th 2008, history was made. After months of campaigning, picketing, rallying and riding a multi-platformed media wave, Barack Hussein Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States of America. The African American community rejoiced and generation upon generation of African American citizens cried with jubilance as the years of oppression they felt in years gone by melted away with the coming of this progressive sign of the times.
Therefore, it came as quite a surprise when I picked up a copy of Black Dynamite. On first impression it’s a blaxploitation film that, with all the incredible effort that has gone into the aesthetic, is aiming to emulate the films of the original wave of blaxploitation from the 1970’s; films such like the original Shaft (Parks, 1971) and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Van Peebles, 1971).
Typically, films from the blaxploitation era portrayed a lead character of African American descent fighting against ‘the man’, represented by corrupt figures in authoritative positions of Caucasian descent, either because the lead was fighting against said corruption, fighting for a group of people in similar down-trodden situations, or fighting to seek vengeance because of false charges brought against the lead character or someone close to them. However, considering the political map of the United States at the time of release, it seems odd that a film portraying a generation of African Americans as pimps, hookers, drug dealers and fighting against the man has been so rapturously reviewed.
There is one clear narrative distinction that separates Black Dynamite to the old wave of blaxploitation films that makes the world of difference. Black Dynamite is a spoof. The film’s plot is very typical of an original blaxploitation film. Set in the 1970’s, the brother of our eponymous lead character, ex C.I.A agent Black Dynamite, is gunned down by the head drug dealer and his gang of dim-witted cronies who are pushing the new drug so far that it is reaching the orphanage and affecting the children. Upon hearing the news, Black Dynamite swears a vendetta on whoever is connected to killing his brother and vows to get the drug off the street and out of the orphanage, no matter the cost.
However, it is the way in which the narrative hilariously spirals out of control and the comedic elements inspired from classic spoof films purposely stand out for humourous effect that sets this film apart. From over the top rooftop chase scenes involving the character in platform shoes, luminescent outfits and a slapstick duo carrying trays of eggs, to the lead group of characters using nonsensical links between Roman and Greek mythology and confectionary to try and figure out the drug problem on the street (be ready with a box of tissues to mop up the tears of laughter in that scene) to the subtler homage of boom microphones being in shot and the actors being distracted by them. The overall aesthetic of the film harkens back to the low-budget productions of the original line of blaxploitation films and the film is better and indeed funnier because of it; the wardrobe and make-up is flawless, the variety in the set designs give such a variety of colour, and the music is near perfect.
Not only does the film give homage to the blaxploitation genre, it tributes the martial arts genre with a whole scene of ass-whipping action on the simplistically named ‘Kung-Fu island”; even the head-honcho on the island, the fiendish Dr. Wu, looks like he could be straight out of Enter the Dragon (Clouse, 1973) – the hilariously long facial hair, traditional attire and as bald as a baby.
Black Dynamite starts off incredibly strong – his introduction into the film is the epitome of a lead character of the genre. The plot gets ever more intriguing, the comedy of nonsensical clichés becomes more and more exaggerated, and even the love interest that is slowly worked in as Black Dynamite works his soulful magic is great fun to watch. The film loses some pace after Black Dynamite and his gang of militant street-fighters figure out the devilish plan and how the drug is getting onto the streets and even though it is a necessary segue scene, there is something lacking in the Kung-Fu island sequence. However, the final fight scene between Black Dynamite and the mastermind of this plan is not only completely off-the-wall, but beneath the layers of slapstick there is a poignant point to be made about the world of illegal narcotics and those in society susceptible to it.
Black Dynamite isn’t a film that is going to change your life, nor is it a film that will gain much commercial success because it is against the vein of current genre trends – that is exactly why it is so lovable and a great watch; because it is against the trend of current genres in the limelight, it is refreshing to see something so alternative available and seeking this film out is more than worth the effort. In terms of its credibility in the loosely connected spoof genre, Black Dynamite is up there with the Austin Powers franchise and the Hot Shots! duo. The visual comedy is on par with scenes from both aforementioned franchises and the dialogue is so accentuated and stereotyped that the humour is derived from the fact that it is so out of time.
In short, Black Dynamite will have you in fits of laughter, throwing imitation air punches to the incredible action scenes and wishing you could grow side burns and an afro. Well worth the viewing.
Thomas Jack Brown