Black Dynamite, a pitch-perfect blaxploitation parody starring Michael Jai White as the title character, went from Internet sensation to film festival favorite to instant cult classic. Its director, Scott Sanders, talks about bringing the sights and sounds of the 70s back to the screen and the significance of the blaxploitation genre.
By Mr. Majestyk
What was the inspiration for Black Dynamite?
It started with Michael Jai White. We had worked together 10 years ago on a movie called Thick As Thieves. I had approached him about doing another movie. I asked him what he was up to, and he said he’d been listening to James Brown’s “Superbad” and came up with the idea for the movie. He did a photo shoot of himself as the character. He had a picture of himself with the gun, the nunchucks, and the suit that he ends the movie in. He had done the poster image, basically. I looked at it and said I really wanted to get in on it. Nobody had ever really done a movie set in the blaxploitation era. You had I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and Undercover Brother but none of those were set in that time period.
Those movies are comedies, but Black Dynamite is a parody that’s also a legitimate action movie. Was it hard to find that balance?
Our goal the whole time was to make it just 10% more ridiculous than real blaxploitation movies. We figured if we stayed close to what they actually were, then it would be funnier because the jokes would be a little deeper.
What were some of the influences you brought to the film?
The Dolemite movies were a big influence in terms of the comedy. You really did have boom mics slipping into shots, or you could see the sound man’s head. There were all these weird continuity issues. The cool thing about playing with that stuff is that you get to see how movies are made. It exposes the conventions more. For Mike, he was really influenced by Jim Brown. He has a relationship with Jim Brown, and he showed him the movie. That was a very moving experience for him. The plot of the movie comes from Three the Hard Way. There’s a very similar plot in that movie. We draw from a lot of movies. The Mack is a personal favorite of ours. Truck Turner. Willie Dynamite. I mean, they have a pimp council scene in Willie Dynamite, so that’s where we got that from. It was fun, because you have this buffet of blaxploitation movies with these crazy, ridiculous scenes that we could do our own versions of. That’s what’s funny about blaxploitation movies. There are all these things crammed together in one movie. Black Dynamite is talking about beating somebody with a hot coat hanger, but then he’s gotta help the kids. Tyler Perry movies are like that, too. They go from broad comedy to serious emotion at a moment’s notice, logic be damned.
The character of Black Dynamite himself is a one-stop shop for blaxploitation heroes. He’s an ex-soldier, he was in the CIA, he knows kung fu, and he’s kind of a pimp, too.
That’s what we wanted to do. You kind of don’t know what Black Dynamite does. He’s kind of a pimp, but not really. He’s like a pimp’s aide. He has an office in the back of the whorehouse, but he’s not a pimp. He just helps out, whatever that means.
One of the funniest parts of the movie is the outtakes with all the pimp characters during the closing credits. Was that stuff written or was it improvised?
Most of that stuff was improvised, like “I have a midget prostitute and she keeps coming up short.”
Did a lot of stuff end up on the cutting room floor?
Yeah, because we had so many great comedians and actors that day. The pimp scene would have gone on for 20 minutes before Black Dynamite even showed up.
The surprise in that scene was Brian McKnight. You don’t expect a sensitive R&B dude to break out the pimp hand like that.
He’s a friend of Mike’s. I think they’d done some plays together. He was great. He was really funny.
How did you get Arsenio Hall in the movie?
He’s a friend of Mike’s, too.
That’s gonna be the answer for everything, isn’t it?
Pretty much. All the guys on the pimp council were friends of Mike’s. Arsenio’s a big fan of Dolemite, too. Once he read the script and saw that he’d get to act with Captain Kangaroo Pimp, he decided he was in.
You’ve got all these funny people in the movie, so it would be easy for Michael to just be the straight man, but he’s actually really funny. Did you know that he had those comedic chops beforehand?
Oh yeah. He was really funny in the first movie we did together. It’s just that not a lot of people saw it. And he’s done some other comedies, like the Tyler Perry thing. But he does a lot of action movies, so a lot of people don’t really see him that way. They don’t see Gambol from The Dark Knight as being this funny guy.
Talk about the kung fu in the movie.
Black Dynamite is supposed to be a Jim Kelly-level martial artist. Mike did a style called Shodokan, which was prevalent during that time. He uses a lot of Jim Kelly-esque stuff in his kung fu. The Bullhorn character does Dolemite-style kung fu.
It’s shocking that Michael Jai White isn’t already a big star. He’s built like He-Man, he has seven black belts, and he can act. Do you think this movie will finally get him the attention he deserves?
It surprises me, too. This is the first time he’s starred in something that’s getting this much international attention. We’ve been to film festivals all over the world. I’m about to go to Italy, and this is a year after Sundance. You go on this whole circuit. I think it’s going to get a lot of attention for him.
The trailer was huge on the Internet long before the movie came out. How did that affect the film’s reception?
The crazy thing is, when Mike and I first got together, we made a fake trailer before we even wrote the script or anything, just to show people we could do the movie. That trailer cost like $500, and that raised the money for the movie. We just put it on a website, and then a Japanese website picked it up, and it spread everywhere. We hadn’t even finished the movie and people were talking about our old promotional trailer on the Internet. It was this real viral thing.
In that trailer, it says that Black Dynamite was played by “Baltimore Colts running back Ferrante Jones.” What’s up with that?
That’s how Mike got his head around the character. He was an ex-football player who was playing Black Dynamite. That’s the meta nature of it.
The look of the movie is flawless. There’s not one frame that doesn’t look like it was shot in the 70s. How did you achieve that?
We shot it on Super 16. We used a film stock that people don’t use very often, color reversal stock. It’s not a negative. It makes it look really, really contrasty. The reason people don’t use it is that you don’t have any latitude whatsoever. It’s really hard to manipulate in the post-production process. What you see is what you get. What I wanted to do was make something that looked like a pristine copy of an old movie, not add a lot of scratches to make it look rough. We also had topnotch people on our production team. Ruth Carter did the costumes, and she’s been nominated for two Academy Awards with Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. We were really lucky to get her. We had really good people on this weird little movie. I was kind of shocked.
Why do you think they were attracted to the project?
I think they were just really up for the challenge. In the case of Denise Pizzini, my production designer, there were 70 period sets she had to create. In some cases, she just had four or five pieces of wood paneling that she would move from set to set. There’s one wall that’s in five scenes in the movie.
Did you use a lot of stock footage in the movie?
Yes. The funny thing is, it’s stock footage that we bought from Sony before we ended up selling the movie to Sony. I think they got the best end of the deal, because that’s like a double dip. There was a lot of footage from Charlie’s Angels and Police Woman and pilots from 1970s TV shows.
Did you find footage you liked and then put it in the script?
Pretty much. We knew there was going to have to be a chase, and that was going to have to happen with stock footage, because there was no way we could afford a vintage car chase. Then you stumble upon things, like, here’s a scene with a helicopter picking up a car with a magnet. What can we use it for?
A big part of what makes the movie feel so vintage is the music. Talk about the soundtrack.
In between the two movies I directed, I was a DJ in Los Angeles. I met another DJ named Adrian Younge. Not only is he the composer for the movie, he’s also the editor. He’s always been collecting vintage instruments and trying to make music in his basement that sounds just like Marvin Gaye. He’d have the same kind of tape and all these sitars and stuff. Half the music is his. The second half is from a British funk library from the 70s. A lot of the stings came from there.
There’s such a thing as British funk?
Yeah. It was music from these European session guys who would make music for libraries to put in TV shows. A lot of it is incredibly funky and really hard to find. Our music supervisor is a guy named David Hollander, who was previously best known for playing “Little Earl” on What’s Happening!! He grew up to be one of the biggest funk collectors.
It’s amazing that the new music sounds exactly like the music that was recorded back in the day.
You just have to get all the old equipment. It’s a warmer, more analog sound. The set-up in Adrian’s garage is hilarious. He’s got all these old vintage microphones, and then he starts singing under a blanket.
That must be for that warmth you’re talking about.
Exactly. He’s got this whole configuration that’s fun to watch.
What attracted you to the blaxploitation genre in the first place?
It was the first time that Black people were heroes in movies. Because Blacks played servants in movies for so long, by the time they got the chance to play heroes, they became outsized superheroes. Its place in history is unique. It was such a short period of time. It was pretty much just 1971 to 1975. People forget how short it was, and they call other things blaxploitation movies.
Do you think there’s anything like it today?
There are things that have elements of it, but it’s such a distinct thing to a very distinct period of time, in terms of what was going on politically and musically. Without that, it becomes something else. It’s like the way house music is influenced by disco. It’s not disco, but it’s the disco of its era. Boyz N the Hood spawned a whole generation of hood movies, which have some elements of blaxploitaiton, but they’re not blaxploitation.
Why do you think it died out?
I think the need for it changed. In the world of Black Dynamite, a Black man could never be president. If a Black man is president, then the whole thing falls apart. How are you gonna stick it to the Man if the Man is Black? Who are you gonna stick it to? We wanted to have a scene where somehow Black Dynamite sees the future and suddenly he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
Are we going to see any further adventures of Black Dynamite?
Absolutely, at least in one incarnation. It’s going to be a cartoon on Adult Swim. We’re about to do the pilot right now.
Black Dynamite has become a midnight movie. Have you been to any of the screenings?
I haven’t been to any of the recent ones, because they’re in all these odd places, like Colorado Springs and Colombia, Missouri. But it always played at midnight at the festivals. That’s how we started, and it’s funny that it’s how we’re ending.
Black Dynamite comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Pictures on February 16, 2010.