According to the trailer, he’s the smoothest mutha who’s ever hit the screen, a man who’s super-cool and knows kung-fu. That’s right, you jive turkeys, we’re talking about Michael Jai White’s latest film project, Black Dynamite. Set in the 1970s, White and co-writer/director Scott Sanders pay tribute to the misunderstood blaxplotiation genre by trying to create the most imperfect spoof. In the film, White’s character Black Dynamite is set on a path to avenge the murder of his brother and stop The Man from distributing drugs in the black community. Dynamite’s take-no-prisoners style of justice sets off a chain of events that uncovers a fiendish plot to decimate the black man.
Sanders and White are longtime friends but haven't worked on a project together in more than 10 years. The two met while filming Thick as Thieves, which Sanders directed and starred White and Alec Baldwin.
Where did the idea for Black Dynamite come from?
White: I came up with the idea after listening to James Brown’s “Super Bad.” Incidentally, it was the first name for the movie but another film came along and got the name before we went to market. But I had this idea and the story came to me and so I started shooting pictures as the character. Scott and I reconnected and he saw the photos I had taken. Off that picture he got the whole premise. I mean, the picture at first glance is very serious, it looks like a badass picture. Then, you look a little deeper and you go, "How ridiculous, he’s got a gun and nunchucks.”
Sanders: That’s entirely the tone of the movie. I mean it's badass, but it’s a little too badass.
Why do a blaxploitation spoof?
White: Well, I love the ’70s — the movies of the ’70s, the music of the ’70s and on top of that, the blaxploitation era meant a great deal to a lot of people at the time.
You know that word — blaxploitation — I don’t like very much. There’s this negative connotation that goes along with it, even though these movies that starred black superstars at the time saved Hollywood — they saved the whole studio system. They found there was a revenue stream and people would frequent these movies over and over again, not only blacks but whites who wanted to live vicariously through strong alpha males like Shaft, Super Fly, The Mack.
They were really good movies and there was nothing exploitive about them. They only became exploitive when Hollywood realized they could make these cheap movies and put very little effort in advertising and everything else — then it became exploitive. So to me it’s unfortunate for the first time we [blacks] were seen as more than pickaninnies, bellmen and maids … and all of that gets grouped under this word “blaxploitation” that has this negative feel to it. I feel that was a renaissance.
Essentially in those films you have these antiheroes who serve the community needs of black people. …
White: You know, the antihero is pervasive in any culture. Look at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, look at Goodfellas, look at Jesse James. They fight against a suppressive society, so I have mixed emotions about when it becomes black it becomes less than [their white counterparts].
I grew up with heroes like Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Calvin Lockhart, Billy Dee Williams. All these were alpha males: attractive, smart, leading men who kicked ass and got the women. There’s nothing wrong with that to me. During the heyday of that genre, we poked fun at moviemaking as a whole. Of course there’s this overcompensation of oppressed people making movies that sometimes has a 60 dead whitey body count. When I was researching a lot of this stuff, I would watch and make notes; Slaughter: 45 dead whities; Black Caesar: 65 dead whities. I mean, there are dead bodies and then he’d go have dinner afterwards. This is a fun element. What encompassed all these movies is the pride, the paranoia and the absurdities. We really tried to put all that together with this film.
Your MySpace page alludes to the “Plastic of Hollywood.”
White: My friend core don’t tend to be plastic. There’s a lot of that element in Hollywood, though. But there are people who, like me, look at it as a job and our family and friendships are of the utmost importance. Scott and I are good friends, so you want to work with your family if you could. Making this film wasn’t incredibly difficult because you have your friends coming out. [During the filming of Black Dynamite] There’d be people who didn’t have to work that day who’d show up and just hang out.
Sanders: Mike would call and say, “Hey, would you like to be a pimp for a day?” and they’d say, “Yeah, where do I sign up.” We had more people who wanted to be pimps than we could actually have in the movie. That’s a fun day.
White: I had friends that unfortunately could get in.
Who did you have to turn down?
Sanders: We wanted Macy Gray to be a pimp. But her plane got stuck, and we were on a 20-day schedule so we had to move on.
What was her pimp name going to be?
White: Lady Gelataine, [a take] off of Lady Marmalade. She was going to be a throwback from Nichelle Nichols’ character … that woman talks shit like nobody else in the movies. [If] you rent Truck Turner — Nichelle Nichols — she’s the coldest woman on film. She turns Truck Turner into a little boy!
Sanders: Oh my God, “I want that nigga Truck Turner dead!”
Talk to me about the soundtrack — some of the funniest fucking songs I ever heard.
Sanders: A DJ buddy of mine Adrian Young had been collecting old instruments and old analog equipment trying to make records that sounded like 1970s records. So I told him now he has a place to put them. A lot of the songs from the movies are like modeled from blaxplotiation movies; they will tell you what’s happening on screen.
White: The influence on that was Three the Hard Way because clearly somebody made the song after the movie was done. The song wraps up everything that happens but they play it in the middle of the movie. So if you really listen, they’re telling you about things that haven’t even happened yet. If you look at Black Caesar, at his mother’s funeral, there’s this song that comes on that goes “Mamma’s gone, Mamma’s dead.”
Sanders: Listen to the actual theme song of Black Dynamite in the beginning of the movie. If you hear the whole song, it’s the whole plot in the song.
Most don’t realize how funny you are. Why don’t you do projects [comedies] like this more often?
White: It's weird, every movie I work on there’s a thing for me to try to stay serious. I guess with movies like Why Did I Get Married, I’m doing more of the comedic stuff. I’m one of these confusing people. I’m considered a weirdo because you don’t usually have the guy who might be the toughest guy to be the funniest guy. I enjoy confusing folk, but my friends know I’m not as serious as I look.
Sanders: I think the thing with Black Dynamite is that he’s all that at once.
So Scott, I hear you were a DJ?
Sanders: Well, I directed Mike in Thick as Thieves with Alec Baldwin and in between, I was a DJ. Then I made a movie 10 years later.
Confirm a rumor: Are you in on the Predators project, yes or no?
White: I don’t know. I mean, I absolutely don’t know. I mean, there’s this crazy-ass rumor but no one from Predators has spoken to me. I’m on IMDB as the star of the thing. I don’t know why I’m connected to the project. Similarly I was connected to Surrogates a long time ago. On IMDB there was my name and Bruce Willis.
There’s a rumor about a Black Dynamite cartoon on Adult Swim, is that true?
White: It's true, it’s happening. We talked about it at ComicCon.
Sanders: They announced it on the Adult Swim website. Carl Jones from "The Boondocks" is doing the production. He’s also Tubesteak. He’s also on our videos — he’s the Black Firecracker TNT with Ebony Explosion. We’re working on the pilot now.
You're no stranger to Atlanta, where do you like to hang out?
White: Flying Biscuit and Houston's. Notice I name nothing but restaurants.