Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Released this week on DVD: "Black Dynamite"

Grade: B-

In the spoof that bears his name, Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) sports every outfit in the blaxploitation-look book. While investigating the murder of his junkie brother, he wears a cheap-looking suit with lapels that belong on a pterodactyl. He drops in on a warren of pimps in a leather trench coat, leather pants, and a turtleneck (all black). He does karate (with a certain elected official) in a sky-blue suit with BeDazzled trim. The clothes, all by the inspired costume designer Ruth E. Carter, look authentically 1970-something. And for its first 50 minutes, so does Black Dynamite. It's as intentionally funny as Shaft in Africa and Dolemite are accidental comedies.

Tired, presumably, of playing a physical specimen (although not enough to keep his shirt on here), White wrote himself this part (along with Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders). And he puts a lot of comical melodramatic muscle behind the dialogue delivered by his Afro-ed martial-artist ex-CIA womanizer. When Black Dynamite -- everyone urgently calls him by both names -- hears that his brother is strung out, he turns mock-intense: "Where is he, and what has he had?"

White stuffs the screen legacies of Billy Dee Williams, Richard Roundtree, and Fred Williamson inside a pair of quotation marks. And yet the actor gives Black Dynamite enough of his own issues to stand as more than a mere impersonation of African-American machismo. The hilarious sight, for instance, of a room full of tiny heroin-addicted orphans slapping their arms for a vein causes a post-traumatic fit: "I was an orphan!" (So many actors in the film launch themselves over the top -- Arsenio Hall, Tommy Davidson, Bokeem Woodine, Kym Whitley -- that Salli Richardson seems all the funnier for playing her part as the orphanage director straight.)

Blaxploitation, of course, is perfectly capable of sending itself up. But the genre's lewd attractions and its dogmatic adherence to a clear sociopolitical code ("Whitey go home") have also rendered it eminently mockable, if not always worthy of that mockery. Blaxploitation started out as a kind of militant black entertainment. Success spoiled it: Three decades after Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song there was merely Booty Call.

Robert Townsend's timeless Hollywood Shuffle, Malcolm D. Lee's Undercover Brother, and Keenen Ivory Wayans's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka (for which Carter also did the eye-popping costumes) tried to think about and think past the genre's problems. Meanwhile, a budgetless carnival like Pootie Tang was out to embody them, then wink. Quentin Tarantino is one of the few artists with a serious commitment to the genre's uncouth glories.

Formally speaking, Black Dynamite is the most studious of all these satires. The loping camerawork and faux-sloppy editing re-create blaxploitation's haywire energy. (The original songs install Curtis Mayfield's ghetto pop with punch lines.) But there is a difference between a director pretending not to know how to make a movie, and actually having no idea. Before an hour has passed tedium overtakes Black Dynamite -- one corny martial-arts sequence turns out to be plenty -- and all the good jokes dry up. No matter how jive the turkey is you're mocking, you're still bound to end up with a little bit of turkey.

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