Willie Dynamite, 1974.
Directed by Gilbert Moses.
Starring Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala, Joyce Walker, George Murdock, and Albert Hall.
Willie Dynamite is the number two pimp in the city who is desperate to be number one, and a prostitute-turned-social worker is determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Michael Jai White’s 2009 comedy Black Dynamite is a brilliant spoof on the whole blaxploitation genre, taking in the bling, the street dialect, copious amounts of totally gratuitous (but extremely welcome nonetheless) nudity, over-the-top characters, a kung-fu fight with Richard Nixon and intrusive boom mics galore, all presented with a knowing wink from everyone involved. If you haven’t seen it then it is highly recommended that you do, if only to marvel at a 21st century comedy that doesn’t rely on being gross for laughs. With that in mind, you would hope that Willie Dynamite – a 1974 blaxploitation caper now given the HD treatment by Arrow Video – would be something to behold, the original monster that Michael Jai White took inspiration from – hell, he borrowed half of the title – and that it would be an outrageous orgy of sex, violence and totally bad ass ‘70s threads; well, it gets one of those three things right.
It opens in grandiose fashion as the titular Willie (Roscoe Orman) is seen driving his jacked-up pimpmobile – with flashy purple and gold paintwork, plus a mean set of horns – past a porno cinema; it is a statement of sorts, and had this film been made by Melvin Van Peebles or Jack Hill then that statement would be loud and clear about what you’re going to get later in the movie, but here it means the opposite and is showing you what you’re going to be missing out on as Willie Dynamite is a movie with a message, and that message is a decidedly different one from the more exploitative black action movies of the time, blunting the edge that the trailer for the film promises.
The main problem with Willie Dynamite is that it lacks the Dynamite part of the title, forcing a very black-and-white message about what is good behaviour and what is bad behaviour into a paper-thin plot that just doesn’t really get off the ground. Willie as a character is decidedly one-note with very little in the way of intrigue about him, unlike, say, Pam Grier’s Foxy Brown or Richard Roundtree’s Shaft who have a couple of different layers about them, and despite Roscoe Orman being a fairly decent actor he isn’t given anything to work with apart from lording it around the set with a bunch of equally nondescript characters who appear to have walked in from a 1980s Lenny Henry sketch. The people trying to change his evil pimp ways – a cop and a social worker – are equally as one-dimensional and had Willie been built up to be something more than what he actually appears to be or had his harem of women had more to do than stand there with expressions like goldfish at feeding time then things could have been a bit more exciting but the writing is to bland, the action somewhat neutered and the whole thing smacking of a mainstream studio trying to tap into something hip a couple of years after the event.
Willie Dynamite is a case of style over substance as it looks fantastic in all of its pimped-up, sparkly glory – the HD transfer does bring out those vibrant golds, pinks and purples in a wonderful collage of lurid bling – and the performances are, on the whole, pretty good, even though the knowledge that Roscoe Orman went on to play Gordon in Sesame Street does tend to take the edge off his on-screen persona. But underneath the fur coats and crazy headgear there is very little else going on in terms of a plot, and at 101 minutes long the film does drag with little of the energy that carried the likes of Black Caesar, Coffy and Foxy Brown on show. The lack of nudity and the toned-down violence is also very telling, as the filmmakers were purposely going for a more accessible take on blaxploitation but totally missing what made the big titles in the genre so appealing in the first place, as is also evident in the score which is serviceable but missing the slamming funk of Isaac Hayes, James Brown and the like. The disc itself doesn’t come with much in the way of extras, with only the theatrical trailer and a 25-minute guide to blaxploitation movies originally broadcast on Channel 4 in 1994 and hosted by Ice-T to bolster the film up, making Willie Dynamite worth a glance if Arrow’s previous blaxploitation reissues lit your touch-paper but is essentially one for blaxploitation completists and collectors only.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★