Monday 22 April 2019

On demand: "Black Dynamite"

2009's crafty blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite mitigates against the intrinsic thinness of pastiche - that sense everything we're watching is a goof, that nothing really matters - via its tremendous, near-scholarly attention to detail: it's a far smarter and more considered revival of the Seventies grindhouse aesthetic than either Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez managed in their slapdash, fanboyish Death Proof/Planet Terror double-bill. Director Scott Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White have taken a decade's worth of Shafts and Superflys (and, most crucially, the opportunistic knock-offs than followed in those films' wake) and boiled down an entire cycle to its most basic and amusingly absurd tropes. Investigating the murder of his undercover brother, our sexually potent pimp-enforcer hero (played by White with the straightest face since Leslie Nielsen, and a rippling physique that's quite the sight gag) hustles on slightly degraded film stock through clunky exposition, shonky chase scenes, and bits where the character stands up too quickly for the camera, inadvertently bringing a hapless boom mic into shot. You may wonder how anybody ever took this cycle seriously in the first place - but we shouldn't forget the originals were possessed of a certain energy, wayward as it often was, and that they offered a form of representation hitherto unseen in mainstream American movies.

It takes alchemy to transform this here-today-gone-tomorrow tat into a coherent, seductive style, and Sanders has it. Whether he's reaching for rear projection, split screen or stock footage, not a single frame here, nor a performer within them, looks or sounds out of place. The afros and costumes (the latter care of the Black Panther-bound Ruth E. Carter) are just so; the soundtrack stings are aptly funky and cursory; even the especially diffuse light looks to have been bussed in from 1974. The narrative may be no more than a sketch with legs, but it never quite tires itself out, instead running into new areas of inquiry (not least the very funny idea that an unstoppable sex machine like White's Dynamite may have spawned illegitimate children every which way he turns) and catching the crazy tonal shifts blaxploitation undertook as it broke out of the margins and flirted with the movie mainstream. A sequence where Dynamite seduces a nurse ("Let me pull out my own thermometer") before schmoozing the head of an orphanage where a third child has died from ingesting smack being peddled by ninjas hellbent on reducing African-American penis size spots how this subgenre could tessellate with both porno and social issues, the kung-fu flick and the revolutionary tract alike. What on earth was everybody drinking back then? More importantly: does anybody know where the current cinema might get some?

Black Dynamite is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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