I originally wanted to write this up in reference to the release of Craig Brewer’s My Name is Dolemite next week, without even realizing the highly appropriate irony that the last (only?) great Blaxploitation film was released almost one decade ago to the day.
It’s extremely tempting to refer to Black Dynamite as the sharpest cinema-parody of the ‘00s, at least among those parodies that take a cinematic form, except for the curious and altogether unexpected fact that the best moments in the film only register as “parody” by circumstantial virtue of being contained in a film we’ve been told is a parody in the first place. Case in point: the film’s most famous scene, a free-associative riff-off that begins with M&Ms, sidesteps into Ancient Greek mythology and cosmology, and wanders into phallus-related hijinks, before solving the film’s McGuffin with what amounts to a supreme imaginative leap on the screenwriters’ part. But it’s hard to call this riddle scene a “parody” in any meaningful sense.
Earlier, there’s a more overt reference to the planets: a fairly amazing verbal pimp-off where the elaborate abstractions of pimp culture verbal cosmology suddenly mutate into a quite literal cosmology metaphor that lies well-beyond-reason, the head pimp explaining his plan in terms of the earth’s axis. That joke is “about” Blaxploitation cinema, or at least about the impenetrable ridiculousness of the depiction of pimps in Blaxploitation cinema. And it’s a pretty great joke too. But Black Dynamite discovering the villain’s plot via references to Ares and Athena, for no reason? Is that a satire of cinematic deus ex machinas? Of characters conveniently gifted with screenwriter’s verbosity? Cinema parody, I suppose we could say, if we’re being generous, but certainly not Blaxploitation parody in any meaningful sense. The minds of the filmmakers are clearly well beyond the pale of a mere genre parody.
That could seem to stretch the premise too thin, to register the comedy less pointed than meaninglessly absurd. And yet the exuberance of the moment, coupled with its sheer off-the-wall elan, won’t quit, and it convinces in spite of itself. It’s less the film playing too loosely with its stated purpose (genre parody) or spiraling out of control into Family Guy-esque arbitrariness than mining genre parody for its elasticity, throwing caution to the wind and embracing something like the narrative-light anarchy already implicit in the genre itself. It’s Blaxploitation parody as a canvas for experimentation, not a template to rest on or a prison to hide in, afraid that viewers will notice it doesn’t have any creativity of its own.
In point of fact, Black Dynamite is so creative it almost doesn’t know what to do with it all, overstuffing us with evidence of the absolutely pinprick specificity of its understanding of the politics and style of the Blaxploitation genre, as well as a frisky, frivolous attitude toward the joy of cinema more broadly. So much so that it is plainly clear not only how much affection the filmmakers have for the particularities of Blaxploitation filmmaking but the capabilities of the medium more broadly.
And all on the backs of what initially exposes itself to us as little more than a garden-variety facsimile of a then-35-years-dead genre starring a character with no discernible personality his name doesn’t immediately make obvious to us! That titular character is a self-consciously iconographic mustache-wielding ex-CIA agent currently avenging the death of his brother (also, and unbeknownst to Black Dynamite, undercover for the CIA). A quest which takes him from the smack-infested city streets to the white house itself, but not before a dangerous pit-stop to Kung Fu Island.
Black Dynamite has enough scientific biological transmogrification and kung fu treachery to appease the non-discerning viewer, but it’s the attention to the genre’s racial politics and moral vista that really sells the deal. For all the genre’s radical vibes, Black Dynamite is clearly aware of Blaxploitation cinema’s extreme dissatisfaction with any form of social redress that emphasizes racial solidarity and collective consciousness rather than valiantly individualistic machismo. Even that’s the obvious stuff, though. More pointed is an amazing line about how friendship bonded in the fires of fighting against “the man” has finally been destroyed by kung fu treachery, dialogue that serves as the film’s tacit suggestion that so many of these ostensible beacons of cinematic “radicalism” tend to displace the objects of their critique (the government, white racism) by laundering their salient social observations in racial stereotypes about third-parties (Asians, in this case). The film exposes the genre’s populist desire to play catch-up with more mainstream Hollywood genres rather than to dismember, distort, and rend them to pieces.
That’s only Blaxploitation’s limits though. Black Dynamite is also curious about the genre’s potential, and cinema’s possibility more broadly. Director Scott Sanders’ films is the only Blaxploitation parody I can think of that is literate in the visual vocabulary and formal architecture of the genre, rather than simply aping its content for readymade puns. It isn’t as wonderfully intrepid in its style as, say, Sweet Sweetback or any of the other modernist Blaxploitation films that mobilize split-screens and cross-cuts to bend time associatively or to establish a polyphony of perspectives. But, beyond (or because of) all the cross-cuts and crash-zooms, Saunders clearly understands how framing and blocking conjure comedy, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of (even very good) screen comedies of the 21st century.
Plus, Shawn Meurer’s cinematography nails the visual texture of ‘70s independent cinema in a way that simply bumping up the film grain (the usual trick) alone cannot. This might make it sound like a mere facsimile of the genre, and it is that in part. But the faultlessly reproductive look of the film is just a pretext for the sheer dexterousness of its style, the playfulness of its mise-en-scene, for jokes that are staged in and via the cuts and the backgrounds rather than above or in front of or in addition to them.
In a vastly more implicit manner than one would ever expect from this sort of film, Black Dynamite’s style is also not just an example of cinematic passion but a study in it, a film about film-making that refuses to simply or explicitly ever be “about” filmmaking. Just look in the corners of the frame, or in the margins of the characters, and you might find a film that isn’t really the story of a black superhero at all, but rather the story of a Blaxploitation film called “Black Dynamite”, released in the early ‘70s, and starring an ex-athlete trying his hand at acting once his previous career dried up. Enlivened by Byron Minns’ apparently never-ending knowledge of C-tier Blaxploitation films (Minns also plays Black Dynamite’s ever-rhyming companion Bullhorn), Black Dynamite is a fairly meta-textual cinematic creature, one with cinema on the mind as well as the eye. The film doesn’t exactly come out and tell us that, but watching it evokes the sense of true cinematic joie de vivre: a film about a film made by thrilled, albeit skill-less filmmakers that is itself made by thrilled and highly skillful filmmakers. It’s really funny too.