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Black Dynamite

Director: Scott Sanders
Cast: Michael Jai White, Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, Kevin Chapman

(Destination Films; US DVD: 16 Feb 2010)

Review [20.Jan.2010]

Satire, when done well, can be a scathing critique on any number of issues. It can be as loose and fun as in Airplane, or as sharp and thought provoking as Dr. Strangelove. At its worst, to put it bluntly, are most of the movies by the Wayans brothers and their inspirations. Scary Movie 2, 3, and 4 are lazy imitations of satire. They dumb it down to the point where its bite is toothless.


As is the case with most humor, though, the line between scathing and toothless is thin and hard to pin down. Based on only a few jokes or scenes, it’s easy to be thrown off the right path and led down one of betrayal. So after viewing the theatrical trailer for Black Dynamite, one may not know what they’re in for over the next 90-minutes. Sure, there are some good lines. When Black Dynamite responds to a query with a stone-faced utterance of “I am smiling,” it will have you doubling over.


Then he kicks a man through a wall and Arsenio Hall shows up. Now what? Well, let me settle things for you. Black Dynamite isn’t exactly a scathing critique or a vital social commentary, but more of an homage to the best of the blaxploitation genre. Director Scott Sanders throws everything one could hope for into the picture and more.


Sanders and co-screenwriters Michael Jai White (who also plays Black Dynamite) and Byron Minns wisely gear their story to augment the frivolous tone. Set (of course) in the ‘70s ghetto, our tale follows Black Dynamite as he tracks down his brother’s killer and tries to clean up the streets. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), he also keeps running into thugs somehow connected to a malt liquer company. Could it be a front for an illegal drug trade or a shady company with a less than legal agenda? You better believe it. The search for the truth leads Black Dynamite to a tropical locale, a group of Kung-fu masters, and even the White House. 


There are more important aspects here than just some silly plot, though. My favorite send-ups of the blaxploitation genre are the multiple technical goofs thrown in throughout the film. During an important speech early in the film, Black Dynamite looks up in annoyance at a boom mic poking him in the head. Instead of stopping the take, he just keeps pushing through his speech. After all, any professional conscience of his film’s budget would do the same. 


Later in the film, there are some jump cuts where it’s clear they messed up mid-shoot and had to splice together two similar shots. All of these “miscues” blend seamlessly into the boisterous vibe of the film and greatly enhance even the funniest jokes.


Obviously, all of the goofs are intentional, as are the other not so subtle references to honor the genre. Black Dynamite himself is something of a superhero. His skills are countless and unmatched. He’s always one step ahead of the competition, and he seems to know what people are thinking before they do. Plus, when he kicks a man, it knocks him through a wall! Oh, and a tip for viewers out there: if a man isn’t African American, he’s probably up to no good. 


Even the performances are on the ball. Any actor who can stay in character while having his Afro tickled by a boom mic is obviously committed to his part, but Michael Jai White shows he truly understands his role by his performance throughout the film. His strong, confident attitude conveys an invincibility necessary for the lead of any blaxploitation picture. It also fits perfectly with his stoic comedic style. Yes, this should probably be expected considering he had a hand in the screenplay, but that doesn’t mean we should take anything away from his acting feat. 


Listening to White discuss the role in the DVD’s commentary track is almost as entertaining as watching him. Though the director has some worthwhile insights as well, White was the true attraction throughout the film.


The rest of the special features are pretty solid, too. Deleted scenes are always an intriguing inclusion, even if it’s fairly obvious why they were cut. There are behind-the-scenes videos of the filmmaker’s trip to comic-con and a making-of featurette that incorporates most of the cast. On other films viewers usually just want to see a lot of the star, but fans of Black Dynamite will certainly value the rest of the cast’s input in the bonus material.


That’s because the supporting cast is an impressive bunch. The aforementioned Arsenio Hall manages to stay within the situation and not blow it up with his occasionally outlandish humor. Tommy Davidson, as Cream Corn, is given most of the screen time and fills it well with his quick quips. Each of the supporting players complements White and the film nicely, though. Even when they’re not given much screen time, they all leave their subtle (or not so subtle) mark on the movie.


The lines provided them certainly help, though. Other than a few extraneous details that bog down a few scenes, the screenwriting team really nailed their goal. 


Black Dynamite is an extremely entertaining satire whether you understand the genre’s history or not. The deliberate gaffes allow everyone to immediately engage with the film’s ridiculous nature. It’s not quite a classic, but Black Dynamite carves itself a niche in the genre all its own.

Rating:

Extras rating:

Ben Travers is an awards season analyst and prognosticator with a devout interest in all things film & TV. Mr. Travers lives in Los Angeles as an experienced writer and filmmaker with an extensive portfolio of coverage, including thorough reporting on the Academy Awards, weekly box office reports, and more reviews written than will ever be read. He is a graduate of the University of Iowa with degrees in both journalism and cinema.


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