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Movie review: 'Black Dynamite' takes blaxploitation back to its 1970s roots

"Black Dynamite," with Michael Jai White as the title character, is given its vintage appeal through the laborious Super 16 Color Reversal film process. A bedazzled leisure suit completes the look. (Prashant Gupta)
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By Jewel Bush
Friday, January 1, 2010

The year is 1972, and the ghetto's favorite good Samaritan, Black Dynamite, is on a mission. Multiple missions, actually: to avenge the death of his kid brother at the hands of mobsters, rid the local orphanage of "smack," collect outstanding debts for prostitutes and save the black community from a brand of malt liquor that not only alters your state of mind but disfigures the male form.

No sweat.

"Black Dynamite," a blaxploitation takeoff playing at midnight Friday and Saturday at Landmark's E Street Cinema, is a spoof that's more like a love letter to the misunderstood genre.

Michael Jai White ("The Dark Knight" and "Spawn") plays the title character, a former CIA agent who fights The Man by land, air and sea. He's got it down. From his well-groomed Afro to his rhinestone-encrusted leisure suit, he embodies blaxploitation so perfectly that pioneer Jim Brown gave the film his blessing.

Remember those movies? The story lines were dark and gritty and came at a time in American history when black folks were saying it loud: "I'm black and I'm proud!" and "I'm black and I'm poor" and "I'm black and I'm not going to take this anymore." The characters were badass and oftentimes downtrodden but they reflected a bold, dynamic sentiment that was new to film. Moviegoers hadn't seen black people in roles of power and control in cinema. Nor had they seen sensitive issues in the black community -- such as crime, poverty, desperation and the complexities of racism -- played out on the big screen.

Past attempts to imitate the genre, like "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" (1988) and "Undercover Brother" (2002), failed. "Black Dynamite" delivers. It nails the look of the period by being shot on Super 16 Color Reversal film, a tedious, unforgiving technique that has long fallen out of favor due to its complexities, and by mixing in lesser-known film stock to achieve a high-contrast and saturated effect on-screen. Rather than taking the easy way out with slapstick, the film pays obsessive attention to detail.

The original score, by Adrian Younge, who pulls double duty as the film's editor, is a right-on panegyric to the bygone great soul and funk blaxploitation soundtracks of the 1970s, which oftentimes served as a literal narration of a scene, even prophesying action to come. In the classic "Black Caesar," James Brown crooned "Mama's Dead" during a funeral scene where, in fact, mama was dead. It's Jimmy who's dead in "Black Dynamite," and in the witty "Jimmy's Apartment," the subtle hilarity of lyrics like "someone broke into my dead brother's apartment" and "could be hiding anywhere" is brilliant and holistically reminiscent of the era.

"Evoking the time period was important," says director Scott Sanders, who will host a Q&A after Friday's screening. "There have been blaxploitation spoofs before, but they were not set in the 1970s. If you take it out of that time period, you have this hybrid."

"Black Dynamite" pays homage to deliciously bad cinema with palpable imagery. Elements of the plot have been ripped straight from the old movies. There is equal-opportunity usage of racial epithets; retro slang ("I can dig it"); fight scenes that intentionally border on the supernatural; hot sauce on doughnuts; men in hair curlers bearing nonsensical names such as Cream Corn, Kotex and Bull Horn; and a plot twist that leads to the "tippy top" -- the White House, with Richard Nixon at the helm.

You'll be seeing more of Black Dynamite. An animated series is being fast-tracked by Cartoon Network, and there's talk of a sequel. Even though an incomplete bootlegged version of the movie was widely circulated and despite its lackluster theater release, "Black Dynamite" won the audience award at the Seattle International Film Festival and the special jury award at the Courmayeur Noir festival in Italy. The Courmayeur judges cited its "intelligent, innovative, witty writing and pitch-perfect performances," called it "consistently hilarious" and praised its "great original soundtrack."

Says Sanders: "I am constantly amazed by the whole thing. It's been a funny and strange, wild ride."

Loaded with extras, the DVD of "Black Dynamite" is set for release Feb. 16.

Bush is a freelance writer.

R. At Landmark's E Street Cinema Friday and Saturday at midnight. Contains sexuality, nudity, language, violence and drug content. 90 minutes.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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