One of the big buzz movies on the festival circuit this year, one that has had audiences rolling in the aisles with laughter, is Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite, a hilarious take on the low-budget “Blaxploitation” movies of the ’70s.
Playing the title role of the militant vigilante known as Black Dynamite is actor Michael Jai White, who might forever be remembered for playing Todd McFarlane’s Spawn but who thrives at bringing humor to the overly-serious anti-hero as he fights against “The Man” and those who push drugs and malt liquor in the ghetto.
Back in May, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with White shortly after the movie’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we learned how involved he was at getting this project off the ground, and the movie’s theatrical release on Friday puts to bed the long arduous process by White and Sanders to get the movie made.
ComingSoon: How did this movie come about? Was it an idea you and Scott Sanders both had at the same time?
Michael Jai White: I had the idea and I started kinda crafting the idea, and I did a photo shoot. Scott and I had always wanted to work together again since “Thick as Thieves.” We got together and went about tackling this project.
CS: Do people find it surprising you’re doing a comedy? It doesn’t seem like we’ve seen you do a lot of comedy or that people would think of you in that respect when your name comes up.
White: What it is is that, when I do an action thing it speaks louder than the things that I’ve done that are dramatic and comedy. Actually, if you look at my resume, I have just as much comedic things as dramas, and I have far less action things than all of the other things, but I’m kind of defined as an action person. This is something that I knew full well before I even started. That’s why I painstakingly established myself as a dramatic actor before I did any of this stuff because I knew that it would happen. I looked at the careers of people who only do martial art type stuff or action stuff and I know that A, it’s about a marathon not a sprint. So, I made sure I was established as a dramatic actor in the beginning. I mean, my coming out party was basically, you know, the Mike Tyson story and then I did movies with people like Louis Gossett Jr. in “Captive Heart.” A lot of “NYPD Blue,” all these type of things, “Wonderland,” I played a doctor, but you know, I’m the comedic relief. In Tyler Perry’s movie I’m also comic relief. Then, I was on the show called “Clubhouse” also a comic relief of the show. So, if people who really know me, they can say, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. He does do comedic stuff,” but it’s cool ’cause I guess the physicality lends to this action.
CS: What was the idea behind making this movie, to do a spoof or to do an homage to the genre?
White: Yeah, what you saw was the original idea and setting it in that type of tone, the way the humor takes on a lot of different levels. There’s the visceral humor, there’s physical, the brand of comedy, the parody stuff, all of that mixed together. I was pretty much a child of “Monty Python.” I grew up loving that type of humor and even structured a lot of humor in the same fashion.
CS: It is played very seriously though. Did you have to write a lot of jokes or were you just trying to get it as close to those movies as possible and let the humor play itself?
White: Well yeah, exactly. It’s exactly that. I’ve felt that at this time being that and to revisit that genre of movie would be pretty funny if you just treated it seriously and then expound on that type of humor. You treat it serious as your base and then on you have a lot of opportunities for multidimensional comedy.
CS: I know you put a lot of your friends in the movie like your co-writer Byron Minns has a great role. When you went to them, I assume you actually had a finished script and just sent it to them? Or, did you just tell them the idea you wanted to do and get them involved that way, say, “Hey, I want to do this movie”?
White: From the onset, I had the idea and my friends, they got the idea. We’d talk about it and even early on I already had the photo shoot. I already made my photos so I had a running start and I had already started amassing clips and watching movies. With Byron Minns, Byron was a walking encyclopedia of blaxploitation movies. He knew verbatim entire scenes in major movies. He could just recite these things and this is prior to the movie. I had to really, really try to catch up with his knowledge of the blaxploitation genre. I mean, I knew quite a bit, but Byron was a walking HAL of blaxploitation movies.
CS: Had you seen the movies done by Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans that had parodied those movies and were you trying to do something different?
White: Yeah, I’ve seen their movies, but it’s not the same thing at all. A similar movie would be “Walk Hard.” “Walk Hard” existed in that time period whereas the other movies may have touched on some things and the only thing that was similar is that they were black. I mean, “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka” and I guess, I don’t know.
CS: Keenen Wayans has done short skits based on those movies, too.
White: Well, yeah, but I mean, this is more in line of those, like I say, “Walk Hard” is more a movie that’s similar. What Reilly does with “Walk Hard” being that genre of that country-western star, that whole thing, it’s taking that and doing a little parody of that genre.
CS: They’re playing it seriously though.
CS: As far as getting Arsenio and Tommy Davidson, all these guys. Tommy Davidson is an amazing improviser. He’s a very funny guy. Was there a lot of improvised stuff on set where you said, “Okay, let’s try some different things?” I mean, a lot of those movies you mentioned, like “Walk Hard” especially, they do get a lot of stuff by just getting really funny people and getting them to improvise.
White: Oh yeah, I mean, I feel like the greatest comedic moments is when the comedian has to adhere to a certain structure. Upon that structure, to actually put the whipped cream on it so to speak, that’s where we wanted to go. Tommy is a long time friend of mine and he was the first actor that was involved with it. Tommy was in the very first trailer that we did for $500. Tommy didn’t even question it. He just trusted me as a friend and it’s like I’m kinda dangling him off a roof, you know, running around on top of a rooftop.
CS: You made a trailer even before making the movie?
White: Yeah, and we actually shot a little trailer that really just cost us a little money just to get the tone right. So, it’s really about tone. You could have this movie, genre, what have you, or something taking place in the 70’s, but it’s about the specific tone that you set that sets that movie apart.
CS: Now, when you’re writing the script for a movie like this and you decide you’re going to have things like helicopters. Obviously when they made the original movies in the 70’s they did them really cheap, so was it harder to do it on the cheap when you were trying to replicate that sort of look? Is it more expensive to make that kind of movie now?
White: It’s more fun to do, because you know the look that you’re trying to get and in some cases, it’s easier, because it’s a technology that’s on someone’s shelf somewhere. You’ve got cameras that are perfect for us that no one uses anymore and film stock that really doesn’t cost much, but it has the warmth and richness of those type of films. Then, you have sound effects and what have you that hasn’t been done in 20 years, so it’s sometimes like a scavenger hunt to find these particular items that are gems for us.
CS: Did you have any thoughts about getting some of the guys from the original movies, trying to get cameos from Melvin van Peebles or Richard Roundtree or any of those guys?
White: Well, you see, that absolutely destroys the tone. It would totally destroy the tone if somebody who was supposed to be young in that time period shows up as an older gentleman. It’s one of the things. To keep the tone right you have to keep the comedy within a realm of reality for that time period, and you want to keep the casting within that realm of 70’s reality as well. If you see somebody that you know full well… it takes you out of the movie.
CS: Do you find that a lot of people who’ve seen the movie were familiar with the originals? I don’t think a lot of people have actually seen the original movies, maybe just footage of them, but does everyone get the jokes right away?
White: It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter. Very much like “Austin Powers.” People don’t remember these movies of the 60’s that he’s lampooning. I mean, it goes back to Bugs Bunny. We watched Bugs Bunny and didn’t know a lot of the references he’s doing. Bugs Bunny was doing Edward G. Robinson and we didn’t know that. It was just really funny. So, it’s basically trying to craft a story that’s viscerally funny, just audibly funny, everything, just being rich with characters, and fashion and music that’s just fun in any time period.
CS: I get the impression this was something you’ve wanted to do a long time and it kind of came together. Is that true or did it come up later?
White: Well, I just came up with the idea about three years ago and I was listening to a song by James Brown called “Superbad” and I just kinda saw the whole movie, it just came. So, at first the name was “Superbad,” the character was Superbad, but unfortunately…
CS: It got taken.
White: It got taken a month before I came up with that title because I went to reserve that title and the Judd Apatow camp had already gotten it.
CS: That’s too bad, but you know what? “Black Dynamite” is a great title, too.
White: Yeah, it’s a better title so that was a happy accident.
CS: You got the great song out of it too. Was all the music for this original?
White: Yeah, every song is original, yeah.
CS: I wanted to ask about the original genre, because as a white person, when I hear the term “blaxploitation,” I immediately think of it as being negative or pejorative. It’s kind of a strange genre in that sense, because it’s ended up influencing a lot of different filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino, for instance.
White: Well yeah, it didn’t begin in an exploitive fashion. It was something that began with really outstanding dramatic films, and it was the first time African-Americans had a sense of pride about their heroes. I mean, this is the first time they really even had heroes. I remember as a young man seeing these bigger than life strong, images of black manhood in the form of Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly, Billy Dee Williams. All these guys were these alpha males who were smart, attractive. I said, “Wow, I want to be like that.” I remember looking at Jim Brown and I’m saying, “I want to be built like that.” To one day grow up to actually wear an outfit of his in the movie, Jim Brown’s like a father to me. We’re quite close. We play chess together. (Laughs) We try to get together at least once a month.
CS: When did you get to meet him? Did you meet him much later in your life?
White: No, I’ve been working with Jim for about 10 years. We both do a lot of outreach programs and I would go into prison systems and speak to inmates. We promote a curriculum that he designed and a foundation called the Amer-I-Can Foundation that is an empowerment foundation that helps people get out of prison and then youngsters who want to find the ways out of the ghettoes. It empowers them with the knowledge of how to change their life. I’ve been involved with Jim and his function for many years, so we became very, very close from that. Actually, when I had the first cut of the movie, I sat with Jim and watched it, just he and I in his house. He really enjoyed it. A lot of the character I based off of Jim.
CS: Oh, nice. You talk about having black heroes. These days you have Will Smith and Denzel Washington and the characters they play. Do you think there’s a place for “Black Dynamite,” for young people to see this movie and he can be their hero?
White: Oh yeah. You know, there’s all kinds of depictions of black men. You have the Denzel Washingtons and the Will Smiths, that’s wonderful, but that doesn’t represent everyone. There’s a Russell Crowe… well, you know, there’s a black Russell Crowe. (Laughs)
CS: I’m not sure I’ve seen him yet.
White: Exactly. It’s like, “Why not? Why not have a black Russell Crowe? Why not have a black Colin Farrell?” It’s like all of that. It’s wide open. Back in the ’70s, we did have that.
CS: I wanted to ask, is there any sequel potential to this? The reactions have been great. Will you find somebody else to do “Black Dynamite?”
White: We want to just sit and we’re just focusing on now. Hopefully we’re in the situation to do that.
CS: You must have a lot of ideas you needed to fit into this movie.
White: Quite naturally. I don’t want to be the one that counts chickens before they’re hatched.
CS: Of course, no one does.
White: We have a wealth of ideas, some really strong ones, but we’re going on the first-things-first basis.
CS: I do hope you bring back Captain Kangaroo Pimp. I think there’s more to his character than we get to see in the movie.
White: (Laughs) Incidentally, when Arsenio read that scene and he saw “Captain Kangaroo Pimp” he said, “I’m in.” (Laughs) He said, “That’s it.” It was great to work with my friends. When I came up with that character, for them not to question that and just say, “Yeah, let’s go with it,” it was really fun.
Black Dynamite opens in select cities on Friday, October 16.