Code of Ethnics
If you’ve seen any Blaxploitation movie or the Wayans Brothers’ I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, you can skip Black Dynamite. A joke is only really funny the first time you hear it, and eighty-four minutes of old jokes is a sojourn in Hell.
Director Scott Sanders seems to think that his farce about a streetwise, ex-CIA Kung Fu master taking on The Man to avenge the murder of his brother is new territory—that the retro-pimps-platforms-and-puffy-hair era hasn’t been parodied in a hundred TV shows, movies and Web avatars in the forty years since Richard Roundtree first strutted down the street to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft theme. But he’s wrong, and the only thing he gets right in this lowest-common-denominator retread is the look and feel of a low-budget 70s actioner.
Instead of using his gift for capturing an era with perfect wardrobe, music and film stock to do what Quentin Tarantino did with Death Proof—which is to tell a new and interesting story using genre conventions as a starting point and not a destination—Sanders tries to make Airplane!-in-the-ghetto. I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with that, except all of the jokes and gags are the first things that spring to mind when I think of what would likely show up in a movie with that description.
Look! You can see the boom mic when Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) stands up from his desk!
Hey! Check out that ad for Anaconda Malt Liquor! Black guys have huge penises, you know.
It’s all too easy. Worse yet, there are some cases where Sanders and co-writers White and Byron Minns don’t bother to make fun of Blaxploitation movies—they straight-up co-opt them. Like the scene where Black Dynamite’s large madam friend, Honeybee (Kym Whitley) cries, “Black Dynamite, I’m so happy.” This is a callback to the movie Dolemite, where a large madam named Queen Bee delivers almost the exact same line—it’s hilarious in that movie because the acting is unbelievably bad. In Black Dynamite, it’s a recreation of a moment that has nothing to do with anything, except to remind the four audience members who know better of a genuinely funny scene that took place decades ago.
This Xerox-ing of material and the accompanying cheekiness of everyone involved drags the film down. The best comedy is unexpected. If I tell you that the movie you’re about to watch is either the funniest or scariest thing you’ve ever seen in your life, your natural inclination—no matter how hard you fight it—is to be on the alert for points of reference (assuming you’re not a zombie, I mean). Your mental search engine kicks into high gear as scenes play out, recalling everything that’s ever made you laugh or crawl under the covers. The most successful movies spring things that you never saw coming—eliciting laughter or shrieks (sometimes shrieks of laughter). The least successful ones elicit yawns or long chats about better movies. This isn’t a conscious activity; it’s a human one, refined from millennia of evolution to help us navigate bullshit as a species.
Pardon the armchair science, but I’m sure there are Black Dynamite fans reading this who think I’m some kind of a freak for having sat stone-faced through what seemed like five hours of endless “wacky” martial arts fights, sex scenes and monologues where derivations of “jive-ass cracker turkey” are used so much you’d think they were being outlawed after the production wrapped (as they should be). But for all the effort that went into production design on this film, the writers couldn’t invest more in their material than relying on the laughter of recognition when Arsenio Hall shows up in a funny outfit and proceeds to do absolutely nothing worth watching.
I was surprised by one aspect of Sanders’ movie, which is its rampant misogyny. You could argue that since it’s a parody of a genre that wasn’t exactly pro-women’s-rights we should expect some “comical” bitch slaps and lots of willing flesh. But Black Dynamite doesn’t comment on its demeaning treatment of women; it merely revels in it. Even the strong female activist Gloria (Salli Richardson-Whitfield), initially built up as a sassy foil to the clueless, macho Black Dynamite, is reduced to a fawning damsel. The scene at the end where our hero apologizes to Patricia Nixon (Nicole Sullivan) for having knocked her into a china cabinet isn’t so much an admission of mistreatment (he only “over-reacted”, after all) as it is an excuse for the writers to engage in that most tired and offensive tradition of urban cinema wherein a street-lingo-slinging thug delivers a rambling soliloquy full of big words in a “white-sounding” voice. In one scene, we get a tasteless twofer.
Black Dynamite could have been a really great movie, had Sanders and company gone the straight storytelling route and made a retro-70s action film. There are moments where the promise of what could have been shine through—as in the brief exchange between Black Dynamite and a thug named Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson); it’s tough-guy dialogue that comes close to exciting—until the screechy Kung Fu silliness ruins the scene. I’ve said it before, and it bears repeating, the movies we consider to be cheesy today are funny because of how earnest they were; not because they constantly hit us over the head with assurances that we would laugh at them. Instead of directing a bad parody (seriously, this could have been called Not Another Blaxploitation Movie), Scott Sanders would have been better off making a better version of one of the old films.
Besides, Keenan Ivory Wayans already covered this territory in 1988 with I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, which imagined what Blaxploitation characters would be like fifteen years after their prime. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s a unique beast that blends humor with ideas (like the throwaway scene where the hero goes to the former black revolutionary headquarters to round up troops in his war against The Man—he’s informed by the last hanger-on that all of the old rabble-rousers got government jobs; it’s a decent laugh, a comment on selling out, and an actual plot point). Sanders could have learned a lot from Wayans. Instead, he invested a lot of time, talent and money into the world’s longest, lamest knock-knock joke.