Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Ballad Of "Black Dynamite" And How A Film Got Lost

In October 2009, a modestly budgeted blaxploitation send-up called "Black Dynamite" launched onto screens and stayed there for about a week. After an opening weekend gross of roughly $131,000, averaging out to about $1000 per screen, the film's distributor quickly pulled it from theaters despite it gaining positive buzz in the press. Thankfully, however, the film's quick stint in theaters will be rectified by an expedited February release on DVD, and its internet buzz is growing stronger despite the studio's complete lack of effort in advertising the film. The story behind the making and release of the hilarious "Black Dynamite" is a harrowing tale of niche appeal falling flat on its face, which, oddly enough, sealed its fate towards becoming a cult classic.

More Dolemite than Shaft, "Black Dynamite" parodies the worst kind of blaxploitation by lovingly recreating it. The movie is presented as if it were a recently discovered gem uncovered out of some dusty studio basement. Kung-fu fighting, hundred-dollar suit wearing, hyper-sexualized former CIA agent Black Dynamite isn't played by modern actor Michael Jai White but by all-star running back Forante Jones. It doesn't simply spoof blaxploitation; it is blaxploitation, down to every last detail. Actors flub their lines, stunts go wrong and boom mics swing into the frame. Everything, from the dialogue to the special effects, is rooted in the 1970s. Unlike, the Tarantino/Rodriguez financial flop "Grindhouse," which used digital manipulation to age its footage, "Black Dynamite" director Scott Sanders actually used 16mm film stock to achieve the look of a film that's been rotting away in the vault of a bankrupted studio for over thirty years.

In an interview with The AV Club, White, who co-wrote the film with Sanders, railed off the scenes the movie needed to stand alongside its blaxploitation brethren: "There's the conspiracy theory. There's white people depicted poolside. There's the chase scene. There's the unusually high death count, with people shooting people in the streets with absolutely no regard for the police."

A long time fan of blaxploitation movies, White came up with the idea for "Black Dynamite" while listening to James Brown's "SuperBad," which was also the original title of the film before a certain other movie snatched the title. White contacted Sanders and the two of them cobbled together the idea of what eventually became "Black Dynamite" in the form of a $500 YouTube trailer that mixed footage of White in character interacting with scenes lifted from various 70s blaxploitation films.

The trailer allowed White and Sanders to have something to show investors, and they eventually raised enough money to write and shoot the full version of the film. The viral trailer spread unexpectedly on the internet, "It started off on a Japanese website and then all of a sudden one day in June it just spread." Sanders told CHUD in an interview, "And we were like "wow we haven't finished the movie yet." Eventually the finished film premiered at Sundance to wild praise, and the movie was sold within twelve hours. And that's when things started to go downhill.

After Sundance, the buzz around "Black Dynamite" started to die off. The film's outrageous trailer never saw distribution in theaters, ads never appeared on television, and aside from a few sub-par efforts for the film to go viral (a Black Dynamite yourself feature on Facebook, fightsmackintheorphanage.org) it mostly went unheralded and unsung. The film's editor and composer, Adrian Younge, explained their situation to LI News: "It's just one of those films that…the studio's afraid of it. They felt that it was just too much of a niche film. So, I mean, there wasn't much that we could do… Because it's a low-budget film, we don't have that much money for marketing and all that stuff. It was just one of those things where we hoped that the public would just spread the word of mouth, you know?"

Well. It didn't.

But the story isn't over for "Black Dynamite." Most enduring cult features flopped in the cinema, in a weird way it's almost a right of passage. "Office Space" barely took in $10 million during its full theatrical run, and it's a similar story for movies like "Army of Darkness" or "Pootie Tang," another unsung blaxploitation spoof. While it's yet to be seen if "Black Dynamite" will ever reach the cult status of those slow burn success stories, the movie is certainly funny and wild enough to gain a massive following. While "Black Dynamite" is far from perfect (its appeal begins to taper off during its belabored, over-the-top climax), it's the type of imperfect film that strikes that key balance between broad and weird, and cool and dorky that cult audiences salivate over.

Even though the film failed to find an audience at the box office, its buzz lives on. Aside from the future DVD release, White and Sanders have both reported that an animated version of the movie is in the works for Cartoon Network that will be headed up by the creators of "The Boondocks." No official word from the network yet, but White seems to think it come out sometime next year.

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