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Black Dynamite is a hilarious parody of 70s blaxploitation films that takes itself just-this-side of serious (no real winking at the camera here), which makes the laugh-out-loud moments even fresher. It feels like it could've been straight out of 1973, and it can definitely stand alongside the likes of Pootie Tang and Airplane! as guaranteed super-funny films.
Starring Michael Jai White (who co-wrote the film) as Black Dynamite, the flick follows the mustachioed ex-CIA commando, the baddest cat ever, as he avenges his brother Jimmy's death, declaring war on The Man and fighting smack in the orphanage. As Black Dynamite, White shows off his karate skills and his dead-on comic timing, and he's surrounded by a cast of wackos, including Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson, plus cameos from the likes of The Roots and even porn stars (link is rated R). Director Scott Sanders gets the film's look just right and vintage, and balances the "kung-fu treachery" and low budget amateurish-ness to hilarious effect.
We talked to Sanders when he made a recent stop in New York City, and he told us exactly how to fully enjoy a night out at the movies with Black Dynamite.
Tribeca: How sober do you have to be to see Black Dynamite?
Scott Sanders: You know, if there was a movie to watch high—and I am not advocating that to anyone—Black Dynamite would be the movie to watch under the influence. Many people have said that online, too: "Man, I gotta get real high to watch that movie!" And you also want to go to a place where people are talking at the screen. That also helps. I enjoy that aspect of it.
Tribeca: What would a Black Dynamite drinking game entail?
SS: Anytime someone says, "Can you dig it?" you drink.
Tribeca: Where did the idea for the film come from?
SS: It came from Mr. Black Dynamite himself, Michael Jai White. The poster image is basically a photo that he shot. The same suit, gun, nunchucks, afro, mustache, and I was just like, this is what you're working on and can I be a part of this? He so graciously agreed, and we shot a trailer for $500. Just him running around. I shot it on Super 8, and I gave it to a producer friend of ours, Jon Steingart. Jon was like, why are you sending me this old blaxploitation trailer? and I go that's Michael Jai White. He goes, I can raise the money for this based on this trailer alone. That's exactly what he did, and that's how the movie came to be.
Tribeca: How did you go about getting the 70s vibe of the film? The look was super on-target.
SS: A lot of it is just a testament to our crew members. They all just took the assignment and ran with it. Our production designer had to set up 70 period sets. She was very very economical with her money, very smart about it. She had a piece of wood paneling that she used in ten scenes. And there's only four pieces of wood, so she just kind of ran these four pieces of wood around. Our director of photography, Shawn Maurer, came up with the look, which was color reversal film. It's a film stock most people don't use because it's very unforgiving. I love the way it looks.
Tribeca: You started with Michael Jai White, but how'd you get other cast members like Arsenio Hall and Tommy Davidson? (And a cameo from The Roots, too.)
SS: Most of the famous people came from Mike's cell phone; they're friends of his. For the smaller roles and some of the other roles, our casting director and I found people, and they're great. A variety of crazy acting styles. I love how it flows, in the hospital scene where Black Dynamite's with the nurse and then the doctor comes in and it seems like he's acting in another movie. [does nerdy white guy voice] "Black Dynamite! I mean, really!" and Black Dynamite's just Black Dynamite and it's like, are these guys in the same movie? That's what they did with blaxploitation movies. They had a lot of Broadway actors mixed with non-actors. It's that kind of hodgepodge mess of just go, it doesn't matter.
Tribeca: What's been your experience with blaxploitation flicks? What are your favorites?
SS: I came to it a little later in the game, I'm not old enough to have been in the meat of it right then. I always thought they were entertaining and funny—they didn't move me in any sort of meaningful way other than wow, these are pretty funny and hilarious. The ones I like, you have to separate good and bad because I love the bad ones and I love the good ones. I would say the best one is The Mack, because it has really crazy, cold-blooded lines in there. He's kind of a pimp who turns more into a brutal pimp and there's just some amazing stuff in there that's part of hip hop culture right now. So unironically, that one.
Ironically, it would be Avenging Disco Godfathers with Rudy Ray Moore, who is an icon of blaxploitation—Dolemite, The Human Tornado, Petey Wheatstraw—these films. Monkey Hu$tle. But Avenging Disco Godfathers came out in 1979, four years after blaxploitation was geared up to be done. He came late to the game with a blaxploitation movie and a disco movie. It was two years after Saturday Night Fever. it has some of the greatest lines in it, that are delivered completely seriously and are ridiculous.
Tribeca: What are some of your favorite lines?
SS: "Where is Bucky, and what has he had?" [which is in Black Dynamite] He's beating up a guy, some random white guy's changing the telephone wires, and he's pummeling him in the face going, "TALK! TALK! Who sent you? TALK! TALK! Who sent you?"
Tribeca: Can you talk about the music? It's kind of like something I've seen on this season's America's Next Top Model—when they kick the girls off, there's now this song that's like "You were a top model..." and it's really hilarious.
SS: The literal what's going on in the screen is being stated in the song, and that's a blaxploitation staple. "Momma's Dead," by James Brown, I think that's in Black Caesar. Fred Williamson is walking from his momma's funeral and it's like [sings], "Momma's Dead," so that's where "Jimmy's Dead" came from, and that's done by Adrian Younge, who's also the film's editor, and also a music composer. He's this crazy guy who collected all these old instruments, analog equipment, [and he] did a great job.
A lot of the music is actually library music from the KPM library in Europe. There was just a time where there were all these white British funk guys, they're actually these session musicians who are spectactular. When the order of the day was funk, they made their own kind of eccentric funk, and we got access to that entire library. It was just great because I knew I could take this and put it in the movie or that and put it in the movie and it really adds a lot. So we're releasing two soundtracks, one of the original score, and one of the library music AND it's going to be on vinyl. It's a 2000 pressing, so there's the old school vinyl.
Tribeca: Can you talk a little bit about all of Michael Jai White's skills?
SS: He's built like a Mack truck. I think when people see him with his shirt off for the first time it's a little shocking—this guy is yoked up! The movie doesn't exist without him. If he was born back then, he'd be the #1 blaxploitation star. He's 230 pounds and has seven black belts. He's built like a football player—and a lot of those guys were football players—but he knows karate, which those guys were obsessed with. And he's got incredible comic timing. It's just one of those things where he sets the tone for the whole project. He is Black Dynamite.
Tribeca: It must've been hard, though, to be like: should he be funny or kick-ass?
SS: He does them both real well. When it's time to seduce the ladies, he'll bring it down.
Tribeca: The film premiered at Sundance and sold immediately, which is growing increasingly rare. What was that like?
SS: We're the only screening that sold overnight. It was the craziest ten hours of my life. 9:00 to ten hours later: we're screening the movie, it's incredible, fun, great response, I go to DJ the afterparty. It's 4:00 in the morning, at 4:30—you know when you've had that half hour of sleep and you're just delirious?—my producer calls me and goes, "It's going down now, somebody's about to buy the movie. Do you have anything you want to say? Any thoughts?" I go, "I have no thoughts, I trust you, do your thing, man."
I felt guilty because I didn't wake up that moment and tell Mike, he's in the other room. So I wake up, walk into Mike's room, and I say I think we sold the movie. Then I get a call from my mother: You sold your movie? It's on the cover of some trade already. You're walking down the street and people are looking at you strange, you just sold a movie and it's a fantastic experience.
Tribeca: What are you doing next?
SS: We got the Black Dynamite cartoon; it's going to be on Adult Swim. Carl Jones from The Boondocks will be running the show, I'll be a producer, write a couple of episodes. And whatever happens with Black Dynamite [the film] will probably structure what happens next.
Jive turkeys, look out! Black Dynamite is hitting theaters in New York, L.A., Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Seattle come Friday. It will be coming to a theater near you soon enough. Click here for ticket information. (And check out the website—it's really fun.)
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