With their SIFF prize-winning blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite opening today at the Varsity, filmmakers Michael Jai White and Scott Sanders were eager to talk about the '70s origin of the genre during their Seattle visit on Wednesday. Both are young enough--VHS babies, if you will--that they saw the classics on home video or in second-run movie houses that continued to play the classics (Shaft, Coffy, Dolemite, etc.) well into the '80s. In co-writing the film (review), lead actor White recalls how they reflected back both on blaxploitation movies good and bad. Meaning those, like Shaft, that really seemed to reflect the black experience and a yearning for African-American heroes. And also the cheapies, the rip-offs that simply copied a Hollywood formula and slapped the word 'black' in front of the title.
Thus, White recalls, "They had white movies that worked, like The Godfather, they would just throw the word 'black' in front of it--they had The Black Godfather, Blacula, Blackenstein. And they said, 'Shampoo was a hit, let's have Black Shampoo!' They're not even thinking about how ridiculous it is--black shampoo!?!"
But the fun of blaxploitation, says Sanders, the film's director, is that mixture of the ridiculous and the heroic...The character of Black Dynamite, Sanders continues, is meant to be a creature of his own era--the distant '70s: "You could take Black Dynamite, and Black Dynamite competes with all the other blaxploitation stars on their own turf. No irony, no nothing. He's true to the times."
Says White of his stoic, Richard Roundtree-esque hero, "The character is played straight." Meaning that Black Dynamite the character is at once a champion of the ghetto but, in his own '70s way, a sexist and a racist who can't tell the difference between Chinese and Vietnamese.
But those were the times, when Richard Pryor and All in the Family were saying the unsayable. Sanders asks rhetorically, "Remember when you could say anything? Now, people remember a time when you could say anything as being amusing."
With an ironic snort, White interjects, "And now we're so much freer?" He laughs at the idea.
Of his character, White continues, "There's some scenes that are played directly straight, that have some sweetness to them and brotherhood and genuine concern. And that butts up against something that's absolutely ridiculous."
High and low, vulgar and noble--the uneven nature of blaxploitation is part of the genre's charm, says White: "There's two ends of the spectrum. There's the Shafts and The Macs. There's the Cleopatra Jones and the things that Hollywood spent money on. And there's these movies like Avenging Disco Godfather and Mean Mother. And there's all this camp. And we wanted to do homage to all of them."
Sanders adds, "That's what's so interesting about the genre. We wanted to crack it open and examine all the little pieces, the good and the bad of it. What is kind of amusing now, looking back at it. What was kind of empowering."
Did that mean, in some cases, laughing and groaning at their old childhood favorites?
"Absolutely!," says White. "You look at The Mac. There's some stuff that I grew up with thinking it was dead serious, and then I look at it [again], and it's 'Oh my God, I can't believe that was in there.'"
Another strange admixture in the blaxploitation canon, partly forgotten these three decades later, is the political component--the CIA spying at home, the rise of the Black Panthers, government dirty tricks, and revolution in the streets.
That had to be part of Black Dynamite, says White: "All the '70s movies were like that, remember? All the President's Men, so many movies. After '68, my goodness, everything reflected that. There was a tremendous mistrust of government, and a war we didn't want to be in. Sounds like just last year, doesn't it?"
Sanders picks up the '70s theme: "Like at that point in blaxploitation history, the CIA is supposedly all-knowing and all-powerful. When we're writing it, these are the guys who bumbled all the WMDs in Iraq! It's fun to hear people talk about it in the old way. There's this wonderful can-do naïveté in those movies--three or four guys, Black Panthers in a room, can get together and overthrow the government."
Notes White, "That word, 'revolution,' gets thrown around all the time."
Sanders laughs at his own family connection: "My mom was kind of hanging out with the Panthers for a while. Which is funny, because now she's a mayor, the mayor of a small town! The whole idea of the Panthers is interesting now. It's like an anachronism--the Redcoats are outside!"
But along with the political, Black Dynamite mines the silly side of blaxploitation--stiff acting, cheap sets, kung fu, bell bottoms, and the improbable triumph of good over evil. These movies are like R-rated cartoons, and that's how White remembers first encountering the genre as a teen during the '80s, at a Bridgeport, Connecticut porno house that played blaxploitation movies on Sundays.
"It's brand-new whenever you see it. When I was going to theaters, I didn't know that these movies were out already. It's the first time for me. Maybe they're at dollar theaters. But I'm a youngster, I'm a teenager, I'm seeing these movies for the first time. I'm seeing them just like someone who saw them in the '70s. They were so much fun. It's only dawning on me [later] that I wasn't watching anything contemporary."
And today, White continues, "I show my children excerpts of these movies, and they're just laughing their heads off. The mannerisms, the way that people were then--it was just out there, outlandish."
Finally, after Shaft and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which both arrived in the watershed year of 1971, I ask the two filmmakers what their next three favorite blaxploitation movies would be. Not best, but favorite.
White: The Mac, Three the Hard Way, Truck Turner.
Sanders: Dolemite, Avenging Disco Godfather, Willie Dynamite.