Thursday, July 31, 2014

He's a Complicated Man: Black Dynamite

Reviewing the feature-length blaxploitaton spoof Black Dynamite in the New York Times, A. O. Scott wrote that the entire 84-minute movie would make a great five-minute YouTube clip. (In fact, the project had started with a suitable-for-YouTube trailer that the filmmakers whipped up before bothering to write a script for the feature.) Released in 2009, Black Dynamite stars the six-foot-two, 225-pound actor and martial artist Michael Jai White as the title character, a larger-than-life tough guy with a perpetual glower, an enormous gun, a moustache so large and flamboyant that it wouldn't look out of place on Captain Hook, and a healthy suspicion of The Man. (“When a cracker tells Black Dynamite not to do something, he does it, Jack!”) The movie was spun off into an animate series for Adult Swim, whose first season aired in 2012 and has finally been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. (A second season is forthcoming.)

If the movie had the makings of a great trailer, it makes for an even better cartoon. Blaxsploitation movies were only hot for a few years in the early ‘70s, but they form a genre built for nostalgic parody. Most blaxsploitation movies were swill—not just poorly made, but racist, misogynistic, violent power fantasies. One of the biggest, Super Fly (1972), though fondly remembered for its sensational Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, was a celebration of a drug dealer; the secret of its commercial success was that it took its hero’s image of himself as a high-living rebel entrepreneur and sexual conquistador at face value. Even if those movies are barely watchable today, it’s easy to understand how exciting it must have been for black men to finally get to see fantasy versions of themselves in knock-offs of Hollywood action movies. (Black women may have had a different reaction to most of these killer-superstud films.)

The cartoon captures that crazy charge, while casting Black Dynamite (still voiced by Michael Jai White) as the ringmaster of a ‘70s pop culture circus. It’s set in a world where Richard Nixon is always President, Michael Jackson is always ten years old, and Elvis Presley is stuck in his fat-junkie phase. Part of its appeal, especially for pop-culture addicts of a certain age, is the way that, by squeezing all this stuff into a warped time capsule, it captures the essence of a pre-Internet era when the world seemed to be a much smaller, more manageable place. Black Dynamite and his posse—Bullhorn (Byron Minns), Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), and Honeybee (Kym Whitley)—are the protectors of “The Black Community,” an urban area that has its own city limits and that, in an episode that takes off from the famous Oval Office meeting between Nixon and Elvis, turns out to be within driving distance of Graceland.

Elvis himself is depicted as a shmucky porker who has betrayed his rocker’s legacy by doing The Man’s bidding, but he’s not a bad guy. (He vows to repent for his misdeeds after a violent altercation in which Black Dynamite, as he puts it, baptizes him with his own hand.) The show’s celebrity targets may be familiar, but it manages to find some fresh takes on them. Black Dynamite isn’t the first comedy to break the news that Michael Jackson was an extraterrestrial, but it might be the first one to depict him as such a monster that it invites you to feel sorry for Joe Jackson, who ends up behind bars for the beatings that Michael forced him to dole out to his “brothers.” When Black Dynamite visits him in prison to get the full story, Joe relates how it all started when he and his wife were living in Gary, Indiana, where there’s nothing to do “but fuck all day and hope you have a talented baby.” When Mrs. Jackson gave birth nine months after an encounter with a flying saucer, Jackson “knew that baby wasn't mine. He had talent!” (The other bad guys include a villainous version of Kermit the Frog, voiced by J. B. Smoove, and it’s worth tuning in just to hear him deliver the line, “Ribbit, motherfucker, ribbit!”)

Like the Matt Groening-David X. Cohen series Futurama, Black Dynamite also does its best to repair the damage done by so many revisionist historians and pundits in the last couple of decades by restoring Richard Nixon to his proper place in pop mythology as America’s prince of darkness. In the movie, Nixon was the ringleader behind a scheme to sell Malt Liquor that shrank black men’s penises. The TV cartoon is actually bolder, showing Nixon scheming to drive down the prices of street drugs in the hope that blacks will become so hopelessly addicted that the entire African-American race will die off. The plan backfires and The Black Community is able to launch a massive local-improvements program with the proceeds from all the white folks coming to the area to load up on cheap coke. Black Dynamite isn’t perfect; it sometimes fails to rise to a level of absurdity higher than that of its sources of inspiration, and there are only so many “pimps and hos” jokes you can excuse on the basis of fidelity to genre conventions. But how can you resist a show whose hero is likely, at any minute, to barge into a scene demanding, “Has anybody seen my grappling hooks?”

 Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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