Sundance Review: 'Black Dynamite'
This elaborate parody of the blacksploitation genre just won an Audience Award at the Seattle International Film Festival, it played Tribeca, I saw it back at Sundance, and I remember thinking about it again when I saw "Black" at the SXSW festival, an example of the genre that never once winks at the audience.
I'm always interested in directors who make one first film, then vanish for ten years, then pop up with a second film. That's a rough patch to navigate, that time between movies. And it's not like you're not working, most likely... you're working the whole time, desperate to get something back in front of the camera, and it's only if you're lucky that everything comes together. For Scott Sanders, he went eleven years between the Alec Baldwin movie "Thick As Thieves" and this year's Sundance sale "Black Dynamite," a buzz movie after its first midnight screening. Scott Weinberg from Cinematical was actually a fan of "Thick As Thieves," but I'd never heard of it, and certainly have never seen it. The only other credits on IMDb for Sanders are for episodes of "Roc" and "A Different World."
And Michael Jai White is one of those guys who was supposed to take off as an actor, and who sort of didn't. I remember when he starred as Spawn, and much was made of his impending starring career. While he's definitely worked since then, the "movie star" thing never really happened. I think it's far more important to build a career where you're working constantly than it is to worry about how big your name appears on the poster, but there's still got to be some degree of disappointment there.
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The collision of these two guys (along with co-writer Byron Minns), both needing to do something that would make a mark on pop culture's consciousness, is what led to the creation of "Black Dynamite," and the results were, for me, a mixed bag. I certainly understand the appeal of blacksploitation and its trappings, and there's plenty in the genre that is ripe for smart satire. And at times, that's exactly what "Black Dynamite" is. There are levels to the jokes you're seeing onscreen, and the fact that a lot of it is funny in several different ways is impressive. But the broadest material falls flat, and the last fifteen minutes of the movie are just painfully bad, a huge miscalculation. Seriously... after you've already gone to Kung-Fu Island, why do you also have to fight Richard Nixon face-to-face? It's a case where they should have stopped at a certain point, which would have left the film on a high note, and instead they drove the joke into the ground with a sort of gleeful abandon.
And like I said... if you're smart enough to make a joke like casting an actor whose obvious Shakespearean training keeps ruining the reality of the scenes he's in, then you're also smart enough to avoid easy jokes about a boom mic hitting someone in the Afro. Tone in comedy is one of the hardest things to define, and Sanders has trouble keeping it consistent. Still, there are things to enjoy in the film, and I can see why it plays well at midnight screenings. If you're in the mood for something that takes aim at such an wildly ripe subject, "Black Dynamite" is pleasant if inconsequential. The best thing about it is the ferociously dedicated performance by Michael Jai White, who reveals here that he has fantastic timing and seems well aware of just how to tweak his own persona. For him alone, I'd say you should see the film, and I hope Sony gives this team a second shot at getting the formula right. If they take all the things that work in "Black Dynamite" and build on them, then a second film could actually turn out to be great.
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