In 1971, Melvin Van Peebles made “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” as an indirect response to Sidney Poitier’s performance in 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” While the ’60s and ’70s introduced more prominent roles for black actors, many like Van Peebles felt their characterizations were conciliatory, subservient and emasculated. With the graphic violence and explicit sexuality of “Sweetback,” Van Peebles obliterated the industry’s prevalent “ebony saint” image and created a new genre of film: blaxploitation. Apart from a big-budget Samuel L. Jackson remake of “Shaft” in 2000, blaxploitation has been dormant for nearly 30 years. Or rather, it was. But not anymore.
Saturday at midnight at the State
Enter “Black Dynamite,” a film so perfect in its recollection of movies like “Shaft” and “Sweetback” that Van Peebles himself would swear it’s been in a vault since 1975. “Dynamite” is in fact the brainchild of novice director Scott Sanders and screenwriter Michael Jai White (“The Dark Knight”), who also has the starring role. The collaboration results in a truly uproarious parody. Like Van Peebles before him, White’s career preceding his blaxploitation debut was mired in anonymity. Despite a starring turn in 1997’s “Spawn,” audiences have only caught glimpses of the trained martial artist from Connecticut. But he’s impossible to miss as the titular hero of “Black Dynamite.”
Yes, Black Dynamite is his name, not just his explosive quality, and he’s not the only one whose given name sounds like a spicy licorice. Black Dynamite has a little brother named Jimmy, but not for very long; Jimmy’s murder at the hands of drug dealers working for “The Man” spur our hero into vengeful kung-fu action. Joining Black Dynamite on his quest for boobs and revenge are Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson, “Bamboozled”), Kotex (John Salley, “Confessions of a Shopaholic”) and a whole slew of strangely named companions.
All these characters answer to their ridiculous handles as if they were perfectly normal names to have. It’s what makes “Black Dynamite” so unrelenting in its hilarity — the rigidly straight face worn in every scene by each character. Obviously, Sanders and White knew they were making a silly film, but when Black Dynamite says, “First Lady, I’m sorry I pimp slapped you into that china cabinet” without even a hint of a smile, it’s impossible not to do just that. Admittedly, those who think things like this are always funny (and not just as an absurdist change of pace) will gain the most enjoyment.
Adding to the film’s humor are its backward technical achievements and attention to subtle details. Poorly developed film, equipment creeping into shots and off-kilter staging are all unintentional staples of blaxploitation’s greatest entries, and “Black Dynamite” employs them to terrific comedic effect.
In one scene, as Black Dynamite delivers an impassioned speech, the boom microphone lurks into the frame, settling right next to his forehead as he glares at it in annoyance. Sanders reached deep into the annals of poor filmmaking by shooting the entire film on Super 16 Color Reversal Kodak film stock. Black Dynamite himself enters every scene accompanied by a musical chorus blaring his name.
It’s possible to be offended by “Black Dynamite.” The fact that the film could be mistaken for a genuine relic of blaxploitation’s golden age is not due simply to the accuracy of its costume department or its visual cues. Women’s bare breasts are wanton and without reason. Cream Corn is the silver screen’s most politically incorrect gay man since Serge from “Beverly Hills Cop.” None of these come across as mean-spirited, but may the more culturally sensitive viewer be warned.
Every comedy tries to be funny. It takes a unique comedy to make that effort look accidental. “Black Dynamite” has the requisite jive to stand tall among its blaxploitation predecessors, but its true value shines in its preposterous sense of humor.