“The smoothest, baddest brother to hit the big screen! Ice cold never felt so good!”
Who are these funktastic badasses at Seattle International Film Festival 2009, talkin’ trash from the Egyptian Theater podium? Is it Shaft and Superfly? Not on your jive turkey life. It’s actor Michael Jai White (“Dark Knight,” “Universal Soldier”) and director Scott Sanders (“Thick as Thieves”) introducing “Black Dynamite,” the latest, greatest blaxploitation hero.
“I came up with the idea in Bulgaria,” explains the buff, martial arts-trained White, decked out in sportjacket and jeans. “I was listening to James Brown on my Ipod. We shot a teaser trailer for fifty bucks, really old looking and shaky, and it went on Youtube. Our financier, John Steingart, saw the trailer and said, ‘I’m in.’ From there, it took about two and a half weeks to craft a screenplay.”
And what gloriously over-the-top wordplay! Summoning the ghost of Abe Lincoln, steely-eyed White reassures an adversary, “I’m gonna emancipate and proclamate yo’ a*s!” Seducing a bodacious, top-heavy hospital nurse, he turns on the chocolate charm. “You’re running a temperature,” the afro-sporting hardbody suggests. “Let me find the thermometer.”
These randy, inspired banter-boulders are hurled throughout “Black Dynamite,” an impeccably mounted send-up of the seventies Blaxploitation genre. Someone is pumping poisoned potions into the ghetto’s supply of Anaconda Malt Liquor, and retired CIA legend Black Dynamite is called back into undercover action. But he’s skeptical of his Caucasian crimefighting cronies, announcing, “’Black Dynamite’s out of the game.”
Can he be persuaded to join the cause? Bet yo’ sweet a*s and half a titty he can! It all culminates in a neck-snapping orgy of martial-arts mayhem on Kung Fu Island, as Black Dynamite faces off against diabolical, Chinese arch-nemesis, Dr. Wu (Roger Yuan).
The plot, however, is hardly relevant. “Black Dynamite” scores points for its spot-on recreation of grindhouse-era ambiance. Can you dig the amazing naugadyhe costumes (courtesy Oscar-nominated designer Ruth Carter), the gritty, Super 16 film stock, and the pulsating funk soundtrack? Even vocal inflections, mouthed by characters named Nipsy, Kotex, and Cream Corn, sound like something from an extinct, bygone era.
In the paragraphs that follow, “Black Dynamite” director and star elaborate on how society has changed since the ultramasculine age of pimpmobiles, afros, and chest hair.
What’s the most difficult aspect of creating an authentic, seventies blaxploitation vibe in a movie being directed three decades later?
SS: The hardest thing, the most delicate thing, is to make people feel like they’re coming from the seventies. There was a way in which people spoke back then. A different way of speaking. I see a lot a period pieces where people are not speaking correctly, and are acting out of their time.
MJW: And it wasn’t just black folks. It was blacks and whites. It sounded different. A different style. There was a look, too. The look of the day was strong jawed and hairy chested.
MJW: Folks are softer now!
Michael, you obviously hit the weight room on a regular basis. You’re not afraid to take your shirt off in “Black Dynamite.”
MJW: I work out all the time, and do martial arts. It’s something I’ve done since I was eight years old.
SS: Mike is a born blaxploitation star! The whole thing was just so brutally obvious to me. He’s Jim Kelly, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson all wrapped up into one guy. It all makes sense!
“Black Dynamite” also embraces all of the crude mistakes associated with its genre. For example, the boom mic dangling in the middle of some scenes.
MJW: For people who have seen “Dolemite” (1975 blaxploitation film starring Rudy Ray Moore) the boom just sat there. It was always in the shot. It’s hilarious.
SS: I watched a bunch of movies and took clips of all the mistakes, including examples of the bad acting.
Your movie also acknowledges the tendency for strange supporting characters to suddenly appear onscreen in these films, out of nowhere…
MJW: The hospital scene with the doctor…the doctor’s acting is from another movie! He’s some character that just popped up out of another film! Meanwhile, Black Dynamite is still there, being Black Dynamite.
Black Dynamite has an interesting interior decorating style. There’s a huge, mounted grizzly bear parked in his front room, being used as a gun holster stand.
SS: I was trying to get that sense of movies in general from that period. Such a macho thing. You could have mounted bears sitting in your home. I mean, in 2009, people have not been exposed to that much “alpha male.” Know what I mean? Do we have “manly man” stuff in movies today?
There’s a disturbing scene involving a tiny prosthetic penis. Where was that prop unearthed?
SS: Don’t ask me!
MJW: One of the ladies in make-up came up with that.
SS: Maybe she found it in her purse (laughter).
Michael always seems to remain in character. There’s one scene where he softens a bit while talking to his girlfriend. She asks him for a smile. With a Clint Eastwood-style scowl, he responds, “I am smiling.”
SS: We used something called the “Mr. T Test.” If you watch Mr. T in “Rocky 3,” he’s really tough. The character outside of the movie…all of a sudden, he has a Santa Claus outfit on, and Nancy Reagan is on his lap. Isn’t Mr. T. supposed to be tough?
MJW: You lose all the grounding of what that character was originally supposed to be. The Force of the Universe is trying to make Black Dynamite more warm and fuzzy. But I don’t want to play it too safe. There are times when he comes unglued a little bit and he’s, like, trying to keep his cool. So I didn’t wanna be “ultra cool.”
SS: It’s like, he lets a little bit out, then snatches it back! There’s a lot of that in this movie.