If our elementary school teachers were right, and imitation is the highest form of flattery, then blaxploitation auteurs should take Scott Sanders' Black Dynamite as a true compliment. Michael Jai White, who co-wrote the script, plays the eponymous hero of the film, a '70s pimp in every sense of the word, albeit one with a heart of gold and fists of fury. When “the Man” kills his little brother, Black Dynamite tracks down the drug dealer responsible for the slaying. In the process, he uncovers a diabolical plot to shrink the masculine members of the entire black male population of America. This conspiracy, like all good conspiracies, takes him all the way to the White House, in a journey that culminates in a martial arts showdown against (who else?) President Richard Nixon.
Sanders has certainly done his homework, creating a pitch-perfect period piece that's faithful to the genre it celebrates. The movie is shot on grainy stock, so that the film appears to be a found relic from the era it's mimicking, much like Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse. In one scene, a boom mic intrudes into the frame, in a self-conscious nod to the famously low production values of blaxploitation. The characters's vernacular fits its time and place, and the actors often intentionally stumble over lines. Sanders is also careful to cover all the genre's political bases: black resentment over the war in Vietnam, Black Panther-esque militant revolutionaries, corruption in African-American politics, and urban blight in general. If Nixon was always the villain in these movies' subtext, the finale of Black Thunder serves as a delayed wish fulfillment by bringing him front and center.
There is, however, such a thing as too much formalism. In fact, it's hard to believe that the aforementioned Tarantino (also a blaxploitation lover: see Jackie Brown) isn't somehow involved with this project. And while this affectionate mimesis has worked for that filmmaker (most recently in Inglourious Basterds, the parody in Black Dynamite is so dead-on (not to mention deadpan) that it ultimately feels far removed from contemporary black culture. (Full disclosure: As a non-black person, I may be equally removed from it.) While the '70s were important in giving birth to blaxploitation, and the period setting makes sense as a way to pay tribute to these films, Black Dynamite is so entrenched in that time and place that it neglects to address black America today. Obviously, these days, the guy sitting in the Oval Office looks more like Black Dynamite than Richard Nixon, but how much does that change life for the former and current denizens of blaxploitation's world, both on- and off-screen? Is the message that black America is the same as it ever was? And if so, how can we begin to understand why Tyler Perry has filled the role once held by Gordon Parks Jr. and Sr.?