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Review: Black Dynamite

By  · Published on October 18th, 2009

Black Dynamite’s the latest in a long line of mean mother bleepers, stretching back to Sweetback, Shaft and the other legendary blaxploitation characters of that brief and inspired era of filmmaking during the early 1970s. Played with self-righteous fury by star/co-writer Michael Jai White he’s an inspired vision in a karate belt and matching headband, leather jacket and tweed suit.

In this affectionate send-up of a genre clearly close to the hearts of Jai White and director/co-writer Scott Sanders, the nunchuck-wielding, butt-kicking tough guy, on a quest to clean-up the hood, traverses a terrain populated by pimps, “the Man,” bountifully nude women and drug pushers. Black Dynamite is frenetically paced, overflowing with puns, knowing allusions and sharp in jokes, and in the laughs-per-minute department it exceeds any genre spoof since the heyday of Zuckerdom (Airplane!, The Naked Gun).

There’s perhaps no greater challenge than successfully pulling off one of these films, the art of which requires more than simply resurrecting a list of absurdities. To balance the checklist mentality of playing to the crowd’s expectations with substantive character and narrative arcs requires an extraordinary degree of precision, a deep rooted knowledge of the genre being played with and the art of storytelling. It also mandates that everything be done with the straightest face, as there’s nothing less funny than actors who are trying to be.

This production’s filled with the harmonious sense of all involved being attuned to those characteristic obstacles and bent on avoiding them. Jai White, Arsenio Hall and the rest of the ensemble perfect the straightforward approach, forgoing the sly tongue and cheek nature of lesser, knowing parodies for performances that could work unchanged in an actual blaxploitation picture. As played by Jai White, Black Dynamite – a walking and talking encapsulation of every cliché imaginable – is nonetheless a credible hero, so tough, well-meaning and proud in his embrace of black masculinity that one could easily imagine him being perceived as a point of pride some three decades ago.

The filmmaker imbues the picture with all the requisite continuity errors and non-sequiturs, as well as the faded yellows and grays of the standard gritty 16mm cinematography. It’s a nostalgically tinged rehashing of beloved stylistic visual tropes that embraces their datedness. The embellished dichotomies of the milieus being depicted contrast sharply. The bad guys are suited, company man Caucasians or outsized stereotyped mobsters, living in a privileged hedonistic world that differs from the pure, innocent ghetto Black Dynamite wants to save. Sanders understands that, as seen through a contemporary prism, the heightened urban jibe attitude, with its faux gritty sense of street life combating with institutionalized society at large, comes across as so inherently comical he needn’t have changed a thing.

He, Jai White and their co-writer Byron Minns have clearly digested a large volume of films from the period. There’s not a stone left unturned in their systematic dissection and there’s no absurdity left uncelebrated. The full on embrace of the stupidity, the charm and the admirably empowering qualities of the genre sets Black Dynamite apart. But, above all, it’s very, very funny.

The Upside: The movie is as funny as spoof since The Naked Gun.

The Downside: Because it’s so self-consciously insubstantial and absurd it’s not always the most memorable of movies.

On the Side: I’ve never heard as much laughter during any press screening as I did during Black Dynamite’s first at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.