October 21, 2009

Black Dynamite (10/21/2009)

Lettergrade: D-

The trailer for Black Dynamite might be the funniest two minutes I've seen recently. The movie itself is about 10 times funnier... and by that I mean that it's funny for around 20 minutes. After that, the road gets a little rough and patchy, and after that still, the car veers off the road entirely and bursts into flames.

The flick is a parody of early 70s Blaxploitation films, and I don't mean the more respectable ones like the Shaft movies. Instead, Dynamite draws inspiration from the likes of Rudy Ray Moore's no budget Dolemite movies, with a strong allusion or two to other classics like The Mack, Coffey, and Superfly. The result is a crazy - and at times intentionally incoherent - farce in the style of the "Fist Full Of Yen" segment from The Kentucky Fried Movie. I cannot really recommend it to anybody, even to people who usually like this sort of thing, in spite of a handful of really big laughs.

I sought out a lot of the pictures that Dynamite mocks myself while in high school, and my reaction to each of them was almost always the same: I would initially laugh at all the cheesy 70s stuff and at the questionable filmmaking: the highly dated music, the grade Z art direction, the lousy camera work, the crappy editing, and of course the repetitive as hell dialogue that manages to be dazzlingly free of subtlety. Black Dynamite works hard to recreate pretty much every one of those elements, up to and including the moment about 1/3 of the way into the movie where it dawned on me that these curious cultural artifacts, while mildly amusing, really aren't worth the time it takes to watch them.

Michael Jai White co-wrote the script and plays the title role. He's had a number of small parts in big movies, and large roles in flicks that went directly to video. In spite of the fact that I can't really recommend the movie, White impressed the hell out of me, both with his charisma and comedic chops, but also with excellent martial arts skills. I'm glad he got to show off his talents in this movie, and I'm hoping it won't be too long before he's given the opportunity to do so again in a much better one.

Like the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse, the film is fatally concerned with recreating a particular look. Deep down, I suspect that most audiences get little pleasure from films that are made to appear intentionally crude and crappy like this. I'm sure that even casual film goers get the idea, but there's a big "so what?" factor that comes into play after only a few minutes. Compare Dynamite's approach with that of another staple of my youth, Keenen Ivory Wayans' far superior I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a picture which parodies the same source material to wonderful effect, but rarely targets the technical shoddiness. I think people tend to remember what movies were about and how they made them feel rather than what the film stock was like.

Another big assumption the Dynamite script seems to make is that the 70s Blaxploitation movies existed without much of a point, and that's not entirely true. Although there's plenty to laugh at in those movies, it is important to note that they were also some of the first movies made by the black community, featuring actual black actors who weren't appearing as thugs, or as waiters and butlers, or as dumb comic relief.

And by and large, they _did_ have a point. The lead characters, often wrapped up in some kind of detective / crime plot, were usually strong symbols of black empowerment. They were smart, tough, and knew how to outsmart the bigoted white guys who were trying to push them around. The story-lines frequently had them attempting to do good for the local community and fighting for some kind of worthy cause... trying to help orphans or attempting to rid the neighborhood of crack (or in the case of Black Dynamite, both: He's trying to help orphans who are addicted to crack!). In spite of the moral shadiness that existed in most 70s cinema of the day, they were still strong protagonists unlike most of cinema's African American characters that had come before.

The ethics, however, were always a little questionable: Drugs in the neighborhood were usually no-go, but being a pimp and having thriving prostitution business seemed to be a-ok. These pictures were clearly made with a buck in mind (let's not forget that it is called Blaxploitation for a good reason), but they were also about more than that on a social level.

Dynamite's aim is to celebrate the cheesiness of those movies, and perhaps aspects of African American culture, both from then and today, which whiteys like myself just might not be equipped to appreciate or understand. Nevertheless, I'm attempting to evaluate it purely as a movie on its own merits, and by that standard, I must say that I get the feeling that this is one of those films that was thought up while a bunch of friends sat around drinking and watching TV one night. Everyone involved seems to have had a great time, but the finished film, which knocked around for a year or two before finally getting distribution, tries to sustain itself on a series of bizarre jokes that I suspect are too insular for most people to get, and do not even come close to adding up to satisfying movie.

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