Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sanders' and White's BLACK DYNAMITE brings back Blaxploitation -- affectionately

Omigod, the 70s are back -- and black, beautiful and banana
-brained as ever. BLACK DYNAMITE, the absolutely spot-
on, dead-on and delightful satire/
homage to the Blaxploitation pix of yesteryear, should be a must-see for those of us who lived through that decade and its films (and loved them, in all their goofy splendor: Pam Grier! Ron O'Neal!). Those who

were too young to enjoy these films first-run but have discovered them via TV or DVD should also appreciate the detailed and loving work that has gone into creating this new, come-lately example of the genre.

Blaxploitation films,
in their time, were empowering because they gave audiences the chance to root for what had historically been the underdog, here made overlord, but still fighting the good fight against drugs, crime and violence in the black community, whether that violence came from "whitey" or from its own. Of course, all this included a lot of nudity, sex, drugs and rock: Audiences had to be persuaded to attend, and producers had to make money. Black these film might be, but exploitative they absolutely were.

One of the purest pleasures to be found in Black Dynamite is the keen appreciation shown by co-writer/director Scott Sanders (seen in black-and-white, two photos up), co-writer and star Michael Jai White, and co-writer/co-star Byron Minns for both the content and style of this genre. The dialog is often excruciatingly funny -- expository to the max, but delivered with such cringe-inducing sincerity that laughter explodes on cue.

Michael Jai White (at right and below, right) had a chance at stardom 12 years ago, when he played the title role in the failed super-hero movie Spawn. The failure wasn't his fault. White was fine and the movie had its moments. Since then he's done mostly TV and B-movies, but Black Dynamite might just goose his career back into overdrive. White is so right in the lead role: solid, stolid, gorgeous (what a body-- and face!) and astute enough to know just how far he can go before he takes it over the line (he never does). The affection that the filmmakers feel for bring to their endeavor comes through most clearly, I think, in White's performance: his mix of macho posing and genuine, sometimes foolish, sincerity. The actor is abetted by a bevy of other good performers, each doing his or her thing (mostly his: Blaxploitation was quite sexist until Coffy and Cleopatra Jones gave the guys a kick in the nether regions). Look for Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall, John Salley, Mykelti Williamson, Bokeem Woodbine and the luscious and absolutely period Salli Richardson-Whitfield (below, left, with White) -- whose Angela Davis-inspired hairdo should itself win an award.

The film has an appropriately grainy and sometimes dark look which mimics well much of what we saw back in the day. The script is funny and flavorful, tossing into the mix everything from poverty to fashions (see left), orphans to drugs, and the entire movie has been imagined and executed with genuine fondness for its predecessors. If the finale goes way over the top, it does so in a particularly political manner that would have been unthinkable at the time but does a mean and funny job of nailing the top brass now. (The villains behind the villains in this film have gone a bit beyond the practice of benign neglect.) I just wish the movie could have maintained a bit more of the smart style of some of its earlier portions: While it's always great to see the comic Nicole Sullivan (the blond on the movie's poster at top, remembered so fondly from the early days of MAD-TV), I have to admit she's a bit wasted here.

Black Dynamite -- from the new distributor, Apparition -- opens this Friday, October 16, in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle. Be there, with big hair.

(All photos, with the exception of the black-and-white,
are from the film.)

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