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Blaxploitation 101: Five that were dynamite

Steven Rea
Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

It's not essential to the enjoyment of "Black Dynamite" — the only thing necessary there is getting a ticket and going to the theater — but Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders have a list of five key blaxploitation pictures they want you to check out.

White, the cowriter and star of this sly send-up of (and homage to) 1970s urban action flicks, and Sanders, cowriter and director, re-watched dozens of titles featuring superstud heroes and foxy heroines battling pushers, pimps, and The Man. "Black Dynamite" is a mirthful mashup of the oeuvre's themes, motifs, and 1970s black (and white, and Asian) stereotypes.

A hit at Sundance (where it was picked up, after its midnight showing, for $2 million by the Sony-aligned Apparition) and winner of the audience award at the Seattle Film Festival, "Black Dynamite" opened in theaters Friday. White and Sanders had their list of five top real-deal blaxploitation titles ready to share:

"The Mack" (1973), starring Max Julien and Richard Pryor, about an ex-con back on the street and butting heads with rival pimps in Oakland, Calif. Says White: "For me, 'The Mack' is No. 1 when it comes to content, to story. ... If you had 'The Mack' done today, I think it would be nominated for an Academy Award. It's that good."

"Three the Hard Way" (1974), boasting the mighty triumvirate of Fred Williamson, Jim Brown and Jim Kelly in a drama about thwarting a white supremacist plot to eradicate blacks. "That took three of the most dominant black action heroes of the time," says White, "and it's a crash course in the blaxploitation genre." Adds Sanders: "That's also the one that most influenced our plot."

"Trouble Man" (1972), starring Robert Hooks as a hard-nosed private eye, and featuring an original soundtrack from Marvin Gaye. "Robert Hooks was one of the coolest human beings I've ever seen in a leading role to this day," White notes. "It's hard to find anybody cooler than that."

"Avenging Disco Godfather" (1979, also known as "Disco Godfather"), with Rudy Ray Moore as a retired cop who becomes a DJ. "It's our curveball," White says with a laugh. "It's true blaxploitation in the sense that there was next to no money put into these movies. ... It was a shoestring budget thing."

"Truck Turner" (1974), with Isaac Hayes as a pro football player-turned-bounty hunter, and Yaphet Kotto as his nemesis. "Isaac Hayes is so charming," says White, "and Nichelle Nichols — she just gives this crazy performance." Sanders: "Yeah, Uhura from 'Star Trek,' who knew? She delivers this insanely vicious performance. It's like, 'Is this the same lady?!' She just embraced it whole hog. She's the baddest female I've ever seen. She's raw in this movie."

A close runner-up is "Willie Dynamite" (1974), with Roscoe Orman as a New York City pimp and Diana Sands as the hooker-turned-social-worker trying to get him off the streets. "That pimp scene is hilarious," says White, "and the star of it is ... Gordon from 'Sesame Street,' which is an added bonus."

Blaxploitation connoisseurs will note that "Black Dynamite" incorporates footage from three lesser-known examples of the genre into its own many-tentacled storyline.

"They're 'The Dynamite Brothers,' 'Mean Mother' and 'Black Heat,'" Sanders reports. "They're all really, really low-rent. And 'Mean Mother' is primarily an Italian film, but because the blaxploitation craze was so huge, they took the actor from their movie and had him do a couple of scenes with a guy with an Afro, put those extra scenes in, and that's the movie.

"I can just imagine people in the ghetto somewhere going to see 'Mean Mother' and thinking, 'What is this?'"

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