Anyone who’s seen a blaxploitation film will quickly recognize Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) as that genre’s archetypal antihero. He’s a virile Black man who bequeaths on numerous women “the best lovin'” they’ve ever had. He’s stoic and mustachioed, fond of black turtlenecks and leather jackets. He carries a .44 Magnum and doesn’t hesitate to use it. He’s a kung fu master; his weapon of choice is a pair of nunchucks (though this bit of “chop-socky” is more a nod to Bruce Lee than Richard Roundtree). He’s a Vietnam vet haunted by the things he’s seen, a former CIA agent who’s given up his license to kill. When the situation calls for soaring rhetoric, he speaks in rhyming couplets, facing the camera.
While Black Dynamite occasionally tweaks blaxploitation, it also reverentially evokes a singular moment in U.S. film history. It recreates the stilted acting, jerky zooms, visible boom mikes, and funk soundtrack. It uses the familiar cheap sets, with wood-paneled bedrooms that recall ’70s porn (Melvin Van Peebles famously hired crews and borrowed sets from the Los Angeles pornography industry). The success of Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, and, later, Rudy Ray Moore, demonstrated the viability of a Black audience. Many of the era’s films, like Black Dynamite, were set in the ghetto, in the demimonde of pimps, hustlers, and drug dealers. Strong male leads — and eventually Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson — opposed The Man and set their own houses in order.
As Hollywood milked the trend for all it was worth, the films became more codified. Black Dynamite brings to mind those later works, formulaic to the point of absurdity. It opens with the murder of Black Dynamite’s younger brother Jimmy (Baron Vaughn) by a gang of Mafia drug dealers (a murdered younger brother jumpstarted the action in 1971’s Hit Man). Black Dynamite uncovers a conspiracy of corrupt cops (white), crooked politicians (Black), and fiendish kung-fu masters (Chinese). He wants more than anything to stop the influx of drugs into his neighborhood, which has produced an orphanage full of pre-teen addicts. This especially upsets Black Dynamite: “No! Not the orphans! I used to be an orphan!”
Black Dynamite and his crew of reformed dealers and pimps find the conspiracy goes deeper than street heroin and higher than local cops and politicians. The Man has produced vast quantities of Anaconda Malt Liquor. “Is that Anaconda Malt Liquor? The only malt liquor to be approved by the United States government?” coos a buxom, Afroed woman in the pitch-perfect commercial opening the movie. I won’t reveal the plot behind Anaconda Malt Liquor, but it echoes the premise of Gene Corman’s blaxploitation farce, Darktown Strutters.
Black Dynamite doggedly pursues the conspirators, from Fiendish Dr. Wu to Tricky Dick Nixon in “the Honky House.” By the concluding nunchucks battle with Nixon, in which Abraham Lincoln lends a helping hand, Black Dynamite has mashed-up virtually all blaxploitation tropes. Even those unfamiliar with the genre will likely find the result funny and clever: it has a broad, midnight movie-style appeal. (It’s been opening for brief runs across the U.S. since October — this week in Dallas — and will be on DVD in February.)
Black Dynamite recalls a period in U.S. film production when Black filmmakers had freer rein — and more funding — to pursue their art than at perhaps any time before or since. (It seems relevant that Michael Jai White has worked with Tyler Perry, who also works outside the studio system and thus controls his own destiny.) One wouldn’t expect a comedy like Black Dynamite to match the urgency and radicalism of Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By the Door, a film so incendiary it was removed from theaters in 1973 and nearly impossible to find until a 2004 DVD release. But Black Dynamite does its won sort of work, reminding us that movies can be explicitly political and help to change perspectives, making money and waves.