Friday, October 24, 2014

"Brokedown Merry-Go-Round" Show of the Week: Black Dynamite, "Roots: The White Album or The Blacker the Community, the Deeper the Roots! Or Those Cotton Pickin' Crackers"

Black Dynamite vs. the IRS
Every Friday in "'Brokedown Merry-Go-Round' Show of the Week," I discuss the week's best first-run animated series episode I saw. "Brokedown Merry-Go-Round," a two-hour block of original score tracks from animated shows or movies, airs weekdays at 2pm Pacific on AFOS.

Black Dynamite is, along with MacGruber and David Wain's recent rom-com spoof They Came Together, one of the few genuinely funny spoof movies of the last five years (this current period was preceded by what The Dissolve has referred to as "the sad decline of the cinematic spoof," a genre that's been partly ruined by "the debased, reference-dependent school of comedy practiced by [Jason] Friedberg and [Aaron] Seltzer"). After I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, I thought it would be impossible for someone else to craft another blaxploitation spoof as hilarious as Keenen Ivory Wayans' Sucka--and Louis C.K. and Jonathan Kesselman came close with Pootie Tang and The Hebrew Hammer, respectively--but director Scott Sanders managed to surpass Sucka, by going in a completely different direction from Wayans.

A clever "Michael Jai White and the other actors are portraying amateur '70s actors portraying pimps, black radicals and thugs" gimmick distinguished Black Dynamite from Sucka ("We tried to make sort of a meta movie. It wasn't like Michael Jai White was playing Black Dynamite. Michael Jai White was playing Ferrante Jones playing Black Dynamite," said Sanders). Also, Sanders directed White to be completely straight-faced a la Leslie Nielsen on Police Squad instead of having him be a broadly played, Inspector Clouseau-esque buffoon like Nielsen in Police Squad's much more conventional Naked Gun spinoff movies or the dorky soldier Wayans portrayed in Sucka (Sanders and White, who co-wrote the film with Byron Minns, a.k.a. Bullhorn, clearly prefer Police Squad over The Naked Gun). The juxtaposition of a serious and stone-faced action hero with absurd goings-on like visible boom mikes, inconsistent accents and continually flubbed line readings ("Sarcastically, I'm in charge")--a juxtaposition that was an unintentional fixture of the low-budget blaxploitation flicks Sanders spoofed--made for a weird and often funny film. White-as-Jones-as-Dynamite expressed only two emotions, rage and inexpressive calm ("What about the smile?" "I am smiling."), and the one time we did see him laugh was when he killed a bad guy after lifting him and his car off the road with a giant magnet attached to his helicopter and then dropping him off a cliff.

On the animated version of Black Dynamite, which returned to Adult Swim last Saturday after two years of no new episodes, showrunner and voice director Carl Jones makes Dynamite even more of an unsmiling and surly character, which causes White's earnest delivery of silly lines like "I used to be a children" or his reason for not observing Black History Month in the season premiere ("Black Dynamite ain't celebrating his blackness on any month that the white man tells him to, so for all of February, I refuse to acknowledge one damn great thing my people have done") to be especially amusing. But other than White, Minns, Kym Whitley, Tommy Davidson, Cedric Yarbrough and Arsenio Hall returning from the 2009 film's cast and the use of Sir Charles Hughes' 1975 tune "Your Kiss Sho-Nuf Dy-No-Mite," the film's end title theme, as a musical sting, the Adult Swim show actually has little in common with the film, which is a good thing. Too many animated shows based on live-action movies have been pointless and ineffective retreads of the original source material (the smartly written J. Michael Straczynski era of The Real Ghostbusters is a rare exception).

Jones made the right choice in not rehashing the film's "Michael Jai White was playing Ferrante Jones playing Black Dynamite" shtick. That kind of shtick would have been difficult to pull off, both comedically on a weekly basis and in animated form; it would have lost its novelty quickly. Also, the show is well-animated as opposed to intentionally done on the cheap like its live-action counterpart. The second season's impressive new opening title sequence, directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi of Kill la Kill fame, is the best example of the Adult Swim Black Dynamite's high production values. When I first heard that Sanders' film was going to be turned into an animated series, I was expecting the animated version to closely resemble the cookie-cutter Hanna-Barbera and Filmation cartoons that dominated Saturday mornings during the decade when Black Dynamite takes place. Instead, Black Dynamite character designer LeSean Thomas and his design team interestingly based their show's look on animator Takeshi Koike's big-budget 2009 feature film Redline (South Korea's MOI Animation studio, which did excellent work on Young Justice, is handling Black Dynamite's Redline-esque visuals this season). I'd rather see more Adult Swim animated shows try to work harder and look as lavish as The Boondocks and The Venture Bros.--which is what Black Dynamite is doing--than have to sit through another show that lazily regurgitates the cheap look of Sealab 2021 and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

The animated Black Dynamite expands upon one of the major gags in the original Black Dynamite's third act--President Nixon is the villain behind everything--and creates an alternate history where Dynamite and his crew encounter a bloated Elvis Presley who works for Nixon's DEA, a young Michael Jackson who turns out to be an alien, a completely insane Richard Pryor (in the show's funniest episode to date) and now both Rev. Al Sharpton (special guest star Godfrey) and "pedophile-looking motherfucker" Woody Allen (Jonathan Kite) in "Roots: The White Album." Jones, who worked on The Boondocks back when Sharpton lashed out against that show because he was offended by its depiction of Martin Luther King, clearly relishes establishing Black Dynamite's young version of Sharpton as a spotlight-seeking buffoon during "Roots: The White Album": the reverend's appetite for publicity is as voracious as his appetite for the chicken titties at Roscoe's, and at one point, Sharpton is overheard mentioning that he doesn't want to be late for his appointment to a Brazilian scrotum wax. The episode is purposely designed to rile up Sharpton--early on, his fictionalized self is seen unveiling a giant statue that depicts Dr. King with his pants down, doo-dooing for peace, justice and equality on a "white cheeks only" toilet--but I doubt Sharpton is even aware of the animated Black Dynamite's existence. It's been six days since the season premiere's airing, and the rev hasn't raised a single stink about Black Dynamite.

They also filled their bellies with chicken titties and fiddle faddle while watching 12 Years a Slave.
"Roots: The White Album" may not have exactly succeeded in generating the same type of publicity and outrage that erupted from Sharpton over The Boondocks eight years ago, but it does succeed in generating a few laughs, whether they involve cultural appropriation or African American viewers' reactions to the Roots miniseries when it first aired on ABC in 1977. "Wait a minute, black people were slaves? I thought we were from Cleveland!," says Dynamite's pimp friend Cream Corn while watching the miniseries' Kunta Kinte whipping scene at Roscoe's. The episode's concept of the ABC slavery drama being the catalyst for Sharpton and the black population of L.A. capturing and enslaving all the white people in the city is brilliant, as is the episode's reenactment of the Kunta whipping scene, the funniest bit of Roots-related humor since the Roots blooper reel sketch on Chappelle's Show.

The season premiere contains more social commentary than previous episodes, but it delivers it in the show's typically profane and irreverent fashion: after Dynamite karate-kicks the Dr. King statue off the toilet to stop black folks and their former white slaves from killing each other, he says to the black half of the crowd, "Look at yourselves, black community. If Dr. King was here to see this, he would shit a brick," which is followed by a small chunk of marble falling from the downed Dr. King statue's buttocks. Yeah, the humor of the animated Black Dynamite isn't quite as subtle as the humor of the original film, but in a time of cultural appropriation at its worst and the racial divide in Ferguson, we need a few more laughs--whether satirical or toilet-related--from sharp satirists of color like the Black Dynamite writing staff, and the return of this less subtle Black Dynamite is better than no Black Dynamite at all.

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