This week’s entry could also be filed under Overlooked Movie Monday because “Black Dynamite” is grossly underappreciated. “Black Dynamite,” which stars Michael Jai White in the titular role, is a send-up of Blaxploitation movies that, unlike the parodies from schlock masters Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (the guys behind “Meet The Spartans,” “Disaster Movie,” et al), actually reveres its source material. Another way that “Black Dynamite” stands apart from Seltzer and Friedberg is that it’s actually funny. Really funny. And on multiple levels.
“Black Dynamite” opens with a drug deal featuring two dealers and obvious imposter, Jimmy, who speaks proper English and gives himself away almost immediately. Jimmy is subsequently shot and killed by some Italian goons led by a shadowy, ubiquitous character actor Mike Starr. When his body is discovered by local police, it’s revealed that he’s not just some snitch, but the little brother of Black Dynamite, an ex-CIA operative and absolute badass.
The plot that follows features plenty of nonsensical twists and turns that give White and director Scott Sanders an excuse to pack in every memorable element from Blaxploitation’s heyday. Copious nudity, kung fu, gaudy outfits, social paranoia, and intentionally low-rent production values fill the 90-minute movie and its obvious that the re-creation is a loving one.
In a recent TED Talk, J.J. Abrams complained that when studios rip off other movies, they rip off the wrong things. They don’t rip off the family relationship in “Jaws” or the divorce from “E.T.,” they rip off the rubber shark and the puppet alien. The same rule applies to parodies. It’s not enough to grab a mishmash of pop culture references from the last 18 months and cram them into a movie: the result is instantly dated garbage. But if you take an actual plot device or a mood or a tone from a movie or a series of movies, the result is something far more substantial. It’s familiar but new, and it shows that the people involved actually care not just about their own movie, but the source material as well.
“Black Dynamite” does this perfectly. It doesn’t hurt that the movie is sending up a dead genre, but the way in which it does so is executed flawlessly. Another big point in its favor is that the movie doesn’t depend on one type of joke to get its humor across. Here’s one of my favorite early scenes:
The bad lighting, the ridiculous bear, the use of stock footage and White’s perfectly delivered speech that begins serious and ends with him doing a brief, but offensive impression of a maimed Chinese boy are all funny and demonstrate the different ways “Black Dynamite” approaches humor. There’s a real self-aware intelligence present that elevates it above a bunch of black-and-white stereotypes played for laughs, which is what the movie could have been in lesser hands.
Sanders, White, and the other writers insert some pretty sharp physical comedy throughout the movie too. In one scene, sadly missing from YouTube, Black Dynamite learns of his brother’s death through a split-screen phone call from his Aunt Billy. Unfortunately, the call goes on much longer than intended because Black Dynamite can’t properly hang up the phone, as the receiver base is positioned just off screen. White turns what should have been a quick throwaway gag into one of the funnier, more random jokes in the movie.
There are also plenty of scenes that break the fourth wall as well, if only for a second. Here are a couple of the better ones.
First, the stuntman switcheroo:
Then, Black Dynamite states the obvious, then quickly corrects himself:
The fact that White is an accomplished martial artist in his own right grounds the action sequences and thereby at least part of the movie. It also helps that he plays his character about as straight as humanly possible in a movie that starts with a brother’s murder and leads to a government plot to shrink black men’s penises and ends with a nunchuk and Richard Nixon. And if any of the just-mentioned information spoils the plot and actually makes you not want to see the movie, you never really wanted to in the first place.
White’s ability to keep a straight face and give a serious performance while the world around him is packed with absurdity and silliness is also a tenant more parodies need to follow. The straight man has always gone underappreciated in comedy, as crowds tend to favor the hams, the joke-getters. If White had been mugging to the camera right along with Tommy Davidson, Arsenio Hall, and the other actors that fill out the cast with over-the-top performances, the movie would have been a trainwreck.
This is the final scene I’ll embed for the movie. It easily demonstrates White’s ability to play straight and highlights his martial artistry. What’s more, the final line of the clip might be my favorite line from the entire movie.
“Black Dynamite” is the rare parody that not only appreciates its source material, but builds on top of it. And while it’s too bad more people didn’t see it when it was released, it only made about $300,000 total, it’s perfectly suited for cult status and a second life on DVD. The jokes land harder at 3 a.m., it’s a great movie to watch with friends, and there are scenes and even lines of dialogue meant for repeat viewing.