Well, the 84th Annual Academy Awards have come and gone and to no one’s surprise, The Artist wound up capturing “Best Picture”. There has been some debate amongst film fans above whether or not The Artist was truly deserving of that honour. No one denies that it did a masterful job at perfectly re-creating an old silent movie the 1920s, but should the Academy really be awarding “Best Picture” to a film that relies heavily on a gimmick? As a standalone film, was The Artist really that great? It’s an interesting question because The Artist is hardly the first modern movie that has attempted to re-create a genre film from the distant past. Of course, the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration, Grindhouse, did a tremendous job at paying homage to the sleazy low-budget exploitation films of the sixties and seventies, and Larry Blamire’s underrated The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was a pitch-perfect re-creation of an ultra-cheap black-and-white sci-fi B-movie from the 1950s. You could even argue that both of these films did just as good a job at re-creating their respective genres as The Artist. However, the big difference is that silent movies are a highly respected genre that members of the Academy are likely to feel nostalgic for, while grindhouse flicks and no-budget sci-fi films are… well, not. Another entry you can add to this subgenre is the 2009 comedy, Black Dynamite, which was a brilliant re-creation of terrible low-budget blaxploitation films from the 1970s. I normally don’t do “Robin’s Underrated Gems” columns on films that are only a couple years old, but Black Dynamite received a very limited theatrical run upon its original release and got nowhere near the attention it deserved. It has built up a bit of a cult following on home video, but it deserves way more exposure. The original idea for Black Dynamite came about when Michael Jai White decided to spend $500 to put together a phoney blaxploitation trailer on Super 8 film in order to secure funding for a feature-length blaxploitation parody. They eventually succeeded and Black Dynamite would soon join the ranks of Machete and Hobo with a Shotgun in the “fake-trailer-spawns-a-feature-film” subgenre.
It’s almost futile to attempt to summarize the storyline for Black Dynamite, since a film like this is deliberately going to make its plot as absurd and idiotic as possible, but I’ll give it a try. In his introductory scene, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) is immediately established as the most badass 1970s blaxploitation character you’ll ever meet when he is shown breaking the laws of physics while banging multiple broads at the same time. A former Vietnam veteran and CIA agent (as he frequently reminds us with dialogue like: “I know I was the best CIA agent that the CIA ever had, but I thought I told you honkies from the CIA that Black Dynamite was out of the game”) with unparalleled kung-fu skills, Black Dynamite decides to wage a war on drugs once his addicted younger brother, Jimmy, is murdered. Black Dynamite gets especially angry with scumbags who supply heroin to black orphans, and goes on a mission of vengeance through the underworld, wiping out every drug dealer and gangster in his path. Black Dynamite eventually uncovers a secret plot to spike the popular Anaconda Malt Liquor with a formula which will cause the sexual organs of well-endowed black men to shrink down to infant size. Of course, this is a diabolical plan which has been perpetuated by “whitey” and after unravelling a mammoth conspiracy, Black Dynamite discovers that the mastermind behind the whole thing is the most powerful “whitey” around: President Richard Nixon. The climax of the film involves Black Dynamite infiltrating the White House and getting into a nunchucks battle with Nixon himself. Indeed, Black Dynamite manages to pack an awful lot into its 84-minute running time, but this is made possible by a narrative that aimlessly jumps from scene to scene without any regard for logic, continuity or coherence. Of course, this is all part of the film’s charm. In scenes like these, Black Dynamite is astonishingly good at being bad.
While the blaxploitation genre was insanely popular in the 1970s and had an enormous influence on the culture of cinema in general, that doesn’t change the fact that some blaxploitation films were just really, REALLY bad. It’s obvious that Black Dynamite was heavily inspired by the work of blaxploitation actor/producer Rudy Ray Moore. His 1975 film, Dolemite, was a popular cult hit, but it’s also an incredibly amateurish piece of filmmaking that looked like it was made by a bunch of people who had clue about what they were doing, and Cracked has even published an article about the film entitled “6 Reasons Why Dolemite is the Most Awesomely Bad Movie Ever”. Black Dynamite recaptures the spirit of films like Dolemite perfectly. Shot on Super 16 film to re-create the saturated look of a low-budget blaxploitation film from the seventies, it definitely looks and sounds like the real thing. While most of the gags presented in Black Dynamite hit the bullseye, a great deal of the entertainment comes from noticing the intentional mistakes that can be found in the film and it may require multiple viewings to spot them all. The movie is deliberately fraught with continuity errors, appearances of the boom mike, and shaky camera work that often goes out of focus. You will sometimes notice actors reading their stage directions out loud (“The militants turn startled”) before reciting their dialogue! The screenplay is filled with on-the-nose dialogue that assumes the viewer cannot understand anything without it being spelled out for them (such as a brief flashback scene where a young Black Dynamite actually says: “Jimmy, I am 18-year old Black Dynamite and you are my 16-year old kid brother”). The film is loaded with stock footage, and you’ll probably notice that the henchmen all seem to be played by the same two or three stuntmen who get killed off in multiple scenes. In one scene, an outtake of an actor getting pissed off is left in the finished film, and he is replaced by an entirely different actor in the next shot! During the filming of Black Dynamite, there was actually a legitimate mistake where an actor forgot to put the car in park during a shootout, and they decided to leave the goof in the finished film. One of the most brilliant sequences in the movie is when Black Dynamite and his sidekicks use some hilariously ludicrous Sherlock Holmes-like deduction to figure out the scheme involving Anaconda’s Malt Liquor.
I cannot imagine how insanely difficult it must have been to write a scene like that, which just shows how making a deliberately bad movie is not as easy as it sounds. As sloppy and amateurish as the mistakes in Black Dynamite may be, it’s amazing to think that real blaxploitation films were actually released into theatres with mistakes like that. However, it’s not enough to simply fill your film with deliberate continuity errors and call yourself a parody. The makers of Black Dynamite obviously did immense research into the blaxploitation genre in order to recreate the films so authentically, and the most important rule they had to follow was to never wink at the audience. Airplane! set the bar for this rule 32 years ago, and demonstrated that the only way you can make a successful parody film and stretch it out to feature length is to play the material completely straight. Michael Jai White, an actor who is best known for starring in Spawn and many other B-grade action pictures, understands this philosophy perfectly. No matter how laughable his dialogue or ridiculous his situation, White always plays Black Dynamite with 100 % seriousness and, as a result, never fails to garner huge laughs. There’s always a danger that parody films like this can run their joke into the ground and wear themselves thin long before the end credits roll, but Black Dynamite maintains a consistent momentum. While it did garner mostly positive reviews from critics who totally understood the joke, Black Dynamite received a very limited release in theatres which only lasted two weeks. Unfortunately, Grindhouse‘s disappointing box office performance pretty much drove home the message that there isn’t a large audience for these type of films. It’s a real shame since Black Dynamite is the type of movie that can be greatly enhanced by watching it with a loud, enthusiastic audience in a theatre, but hopefully, it will have a long shelf as a cult movie. Most people who have watched it on home video have declared it to be one of the funniest comedies of the past decade, and a sequel and an animated series are reportedly in the works. While film snobs may scoff at this remark, but in its own way, Black Dynamite is just as skilled a piece of filmmaking as The Artist. Both films successfully achieve their goal at doing a pitch-perfect re-creation of an extinct genre, but even though The Artist was the one that took home the Academy Award, Black Dynamite is the film I’d rather pop into my DVD player any day.
Next week, stay tuned for the return of “Robin’s Underrated Crap” as I examine The Guy From Harlem, an indescribably inept blaxploitation picture that makes virtually all of the mistakes that Black Dynamite satirizes.