Viking Night: Black Dynamite
By Bruce Hall
April 18, 2018
You might have seen the poster for Black Dynamite, browsing through Netflix, looking for something NOT to watch. Have you ever done that? You have no idea what you DO want to watch, but there seems to be no trouble whatsoever finding that you don’t. So you’ve probably seen the poster for Black Dynamite and scrolled right on past. I don’t know why; it’s dominated by a giant black man brandishing a silver pistol and a pair of nunchaku.
There’s no logical reason why you shouldn’t want to see Black Dynamite, but I guess I wouldn’t blame some of you if your first thought upon hearing that description was:
“That sounds like a cheesy Blaxploitation film from the 1970’s, and I do not want to see it.”
Wrong. Black Dynamite is the rare film that sets out to spoof a genre, and in doing so ends up being a clinic on how to do the real thing right. Set in the 70’s, Black Dynamite concerns the exploits of its titular character. Part decorated Vietnam war veteran, part former CIA operative, part private investigator, part, kung fu expert, and part sex dynamo, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is the baddest soul brother in town.
And he makes it his business to look after the people. Black Dynamite drives a pimp-ass Cadillac Fleetwood. Black Dynamite keeps the pimps fair with the local girls. Black Dynamite knows how to stick it to The Man. Black Dynamite can satisfy three women at once. And Black Dynamite really, REALLY hates drug dealers.
This means that when Black Dynamite’s younger brother is killed by (white) drug kingpins, Black Dynamite declares war against whoever is behind the city’s heroin epidemic. It doesn’t take long for Black Dynamite to discover that a mysterious Organization of vague Italian stereotypes has been intentionally flooding black orphanages with drugs and malt liquor, as part of a diabolical strategy to specifically subjugate the black population. Black Dynamite’s investigative methods include sweet spin kicks, dominating with the nunchucks, and knocking any and all jive-turkeys the fuck out.
He doesn’t really have any weaknesses and there’s no discernible arc to his character. He is simply Black Dynamite, and Black Dynamite is as Black Dynamite does. And by the way - the name “Black Dynamite” appears in the script as often as it has in this column so far, and every time Black Dynamite himself does something cool, the action is punctuated with a vocal clip from the theme song:
This was a popular technique throughout the genre, and I’ve always loved it. Much the way a laugh track informs you when you should laugh, the Black Dynamite Drop lets you know when something badass has occurred. It’s all part of the joke, and the movie’s far too short for it to wear out its welcome. What makes Black Dynamite such a riot is that it takes itself as seriously as most real Blaxploitation movies did, and it puts great effort into recreating everything that made the genre so unintentionally hilarious.
To be fair, “Blaxploitation” films were a form of self soothing social propaganda as much as anything else. The intended audience couldn’t help but feel some gratification at seeing black casts with black heroes doing their best to solve “black problems”. Most of the movies weren’t very good but there were a few gems. Besides, sometimes it’s nice to let your imagination provide what reality cannot. Maybe you can’t go around pimp-smacking jive-turkeys, but Black Dynamite CAN.
That’s what entertainment is all about.
Still, let’s not pretend the genre as a whole was about much more than making money. Black Dynamite riffs on as many genre tropes as can be fit into ninety minutes. There’s the Military Industrial drug conspiracy. The perceived cultural pervasiveness of malt liquor potent enough to peel paint. And the general idea that if you are black, and you have problems, it’s because Whitey wants it that way. As with any cultural bias, there’s a sliver of truth behind it and a proportionally much greater amount of bullshit underneath. The important thing is that Black Dynamite successfully recreates not just the appropriate tone but also all the lovely little things that made these terrible films so fun.
To that end, Black Dynamite is filled with intentionally hysterical miscues like lingering boom mics, baffling continuity errors, flubbed dialogue and painfully overwrought exposition. The music is spot-on period appropriate, meaning both “funky” and “hastily recorded”. This is a movie that looks and sounds like it was made as quickly as possible. It’s almost as though someone was desperately trying to capitalize on the brief window of cultural relevance they somehow knew they had!
Funny thing is, that’s exactly what people used to do. And some of them made a lot of money doing it. And as silly as it seems looking back, how can you not roll with the premise and have a great time? Black Dynamite has friends and sidekicks with names like “Cream Corn” and “Bullhorn”. Black Dynamite fought a surprising number of “Chinamen” in Vietnam. And Black Dynamite hates having his kung fu interrupted. There’s very little about it that isn’t already funny, but the key to getting a movie like this to work - just as it was back in the day - is having the right lead.
Michael Jai White is legitimately impressive as an action hero, and his presence is what makes the movie tick. The rest of it really comes down to recreating the look and feel of the real thing, and letting the built-in story beats do their work. Still, pretending like you don’t know how to act on screen is perhaps as difficult as learning to do it right, so credit must be given to a solid supporting cast that includes early 21st Century notables like Tommy Davidson, Phil Morris and Nicole Sullivan.
In a nutshell, the next time you’re browsing through Netflix, looking for something not to watch, do not NOT watch Black Dynamite. Yes, it IS a cheesy Blaxploitation flick. But it’s not from the 1970’s, and you DO want to see it.
And for several weeks after you do, I’m warning you - your ringtone is going to be: