Remakes, sequels, reboots: these are common parlance in the film industry today and have been since its birth, really. There is no film property immune to this, especially a successful one. And though the blaxploitation genre, which reached its height of popularity in the 1970s, still enjoys a rabid cult following, few of the attempts to re-energize this vital branch of American film have been very successful.
Black Dynamite, the 2009 film starring Michael Jai White, is now also an animated series now airing Sundays on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. And while the character and his world may still effectively be a cult happening, it is clear that Black Dynamite is the most successful blaxploitation property to hit the streets since platform shoes went out of fashion. Loaded with sex, violence, and sex and violence, Black Dynamite is the true sequel to Shaft that fans have been waiting for.
There have been many attempts to revitalize the blaxploitation genre, to reinvest the relevance that it once proudly carried in the 1970s, especially to black audiences. As one of the whitest suburbanites you’re ever likely to meet, I would do well to resist speaking on behalf of the black community. But I think it clear that when it comes to the action-adventure genre in any form of literature—films, TV, books—black men and women are still widely underrepresented in major roles, and any effort to repeal that, even if it means mining the fashions and mindsets of the now-archaic ‘70s for laughs, is a fine effort indeed. In fact, it might just be this tendency towards satire that allows for the new relevance Black Dynamite brings to this segment of the cultural conversation.
Take I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka. This 1988 film was written, directed by, and stars Keenan Ivory Wayans, and was also my entrée to the wild world of blaxploitation film. I was in seventh grade when Wayans’ first commercial and critical hit, In Living Color, began airing on Fox, and my friends and I were immediate fans. So we dug up this film, which also featured Damon Wayans, as well as Kadeem Hardison and Dawnn Lewis, whom we all knew from the Cosby spin-off A Different World. We had no idea who Isaac Hayes, Jim Brown, or Bernie Casey were whatsoever. Fortunately, we’d find out.
Despite this youthful ignorance, we all enjoyed multiple viewings of I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka. Obviously, 12-year-old boys are going to enjoy the broad sort of humor on display, as this flick is very reminiscent of the Zucker brothers films like Airplane! And Top Secret! that we’d already been devouring since grade school (our parents didn’t pay much attention to what we watched, thankfully). But also, I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka very much follows the action-film template set up in the 1970s through such films as Slaughter and Truck Turner: action-hero comes home to find a family member’s been killed by organized crime, and since the police and the white establishment are corrupt, it is up to him to seek vengeance and justice. This was also of course the exact same plot in all the Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies we gobbled up like Skittles, but here we were getting a glimpse at the true roots of the action-adventure film.
I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka is also very meta in that it incorporates the former blaxploitation stars listed above, along with smaller roles for such memorable supporting players as Antonio Fargas and Clarence Williams III. Again, we had no idea who these guys were, but if it wasn’t for this silly little film, we may never have found out. And while I can’t speak for my junior-high buddies, I’ll forever be grateful to this movie for that if nothing else.
There have been a few stabs at more traditional blaxploitation filmmaking, with varying levels of success. Despite the fact that 1996’s Original Gangstas starred such original gangstas as Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier, and was directed by Larry Cohen, who also directed Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem, the film was a pretty big flop. Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 film Jackie Brown, also starring Grier, did very well and continues to enjoy popularity amongst Tarantino’s massive fan-base, but many blaxploitation purists discount the film as being anything more than another Tarantino swipe from the films of the ‘70s (for the record, I like the film on its own, though it took a while for it to grow on me). Probably the film which has come closest over the years is John Singleton’s 2000 film, Shaft.
As you may have guessed, I was extremely excited for this movie when it was released. Singleton hadn’t done a whole lot of impressive work since his debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood, but that still carried a lot of weight for me. The film starred Samuel L. Jackson as the titular character, nephew to the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks, John Shaft, originally portrayed by Richard Roundtree, who also has a cameo in this film. Overall the film is pretty enjoyable, with the usual stellar performance by Jackson, and also Jeffrey Wright and Christian Bale turning in terrifically vulgar character roles, Bale in particular chewing the scenery in the grand tradition of white villains in blaxploitation films (see Shelley Winters in Cleopatra Jones).
But it would appear that this attempt to reboot the blaxploitation genre was doomed from the start. Apparently, Jackson and Singleton were at odds with each other from jump street about the direction the film should take, and so even though the film did well at the box office, it seems unlikely the two will work together again. In fact, Singleton had sequels planned, but upon release of the film, Jackson was so disappointed with the final product that he refused to be a part of any future films.
This may be for the best. While it seems clear to me that Singleton was attempting to make a traditional blaxploitation film, one that would be relevant to 21st century audiences while still remaining true to its roots, the pressure from film studios as well as audiences not as well versed in the original films was too great. Bale’s outsized racist character was scaled down considerably after he did not test well with audiences, and Wright’s character was given more to do. Not to take anything away from Wright’s performance, which is great, but his character definitely should have been a bit more downplayed, as were the similar roles played by Antonio Fargas over the length of his grand career.
So it appears that audiences today are unable to take the overly macho and, frankly, quite sexist themes of the original blaxploitation films at all seriously. And that’s fair enough, I suppose, as those films were very much a product of their time. But how is one to make a blaxploitation film without sliding back too much into parody and without paying heed to the sometimes unreasonable demands of studios and mainstream audiences?
Simply place tongue firmly in cheek, and just do it yourself.
Black Dynamite had this trailer before it had funding or even a screenplay. White, along with his co-writers Scott Sanders (who also directs) and Byron Minns (who co-stars as the Dolemite-esque Bullhorn) whipped up the trailer on their own dime, using a lot of footage from old films edited together with new shots of White in character, and then showed it to producer Jon Steingart, who was then heard to remark, “Oh my God. Okay, we can raise money for this.” The three then wrote the screenplay, and shooting on the film lasted only about twenty days. Given the crunch for both time and money, the film had to be shot almost exactly as the original blaxploitation films were shot: one take and out, on to the next scene. So the grittiness (and the errors, only some of which were intentional) of the original films remains intact.
And while the film certainly lapses into parody, it never gets quite as broad as I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka. For example, early on in the film, Black Dynamite is practicing his kung-fu, which basically consists of his beating the shit out of an entire dojo. A running gag is that he keeps popping up behind one beleaguered sparring partner, even though he’d just been on the other side of the room. But since White is extensively trained in the martial arts, he actually pulls off the lion’s share of Black Dynamite’s moves. So between giggles, one can actually enjoy the martial-arts action throughout. Nothing against Sucka’s Kung Fu Joe, but he never actually gets an extended fight scene, the poor guy.
Take also Black Dynamite’s luck with the ladies. Though he’s depicted several times in the film doing his duty to that booty, it’s not completely without result. At one point in the film, he meets two little neighborhood girls who both tell him their mamas say their daddy’s name is Black Dynamite. To which he says, “Uh, hush up, little girls. Lotta cats have that name.” It’s a brief scene, played for laughs, but hell, you never saw anything like that happen to John Shaft. Even a brief moment of discomfort for our action hero is a fresh take on the blaxploitation mythos.
The Black Dynamite cartoon is a lot of fun, and you should definitely check it out. But for me, it’s merely a nice P.S. to an already excellent movie. Hopefully, a film sequel is in the works as I write this, but even if not, 2009’s Black Dynamite achieved what any post-1980 blaxploitation film failed to quite grasp: the perfect balance between parody and homage. That’s an extremely difficult line to straddle, but if there’s one man who can do it, it’s Black Dynamite.