Michael Jai White’s Black Dynamite is a modern mythic character, the perfect combination of Shaft and Black Belt Jones, too compelling to be confined to a cult classic better than either half of Grindhouse. And even though the original Black Dynamite film struggled to pad out its run time—it played a bit like an extension of a parody trailer—there was enough madcap silliness to put it in the realm of other tangential genre spoofs like Airplane!, so lovingly crafted to both mock and celebrate a classic genre and its conventions.
Transferred into an animated series, Black Dynamite doesn’t retain the same pared focus as the film. Its style is more akin to a 1970s version of Boondocks—an impression aided by the presence of past Boondocks staffers like executive producer/head writer Carl Jones and co-executive producer Brian Ash—than to the Blaxploitation style. The film version of Black Dynamite didn’t just send-up Blaxploitation cinema. As Scott Tobias put it in his New Cult Canon entry on the film, Black Dynamite was capable of “riffing off the audience’s understanding of the way movies are put together,” including a scene that “cleaves the frame into two halves just because.”
That knowing genre deconstruction mixed with an astute cinematic vocabulary is absent from the animated incarnation, replaced by a broader comic sensibility that nonetheless neuters some of what was so special about the film in the first place Imagine if the O-Ren Ishii origin story from Kill Bill if it was in stop-motion animation instead of an anime-inspired style—that’s the same kind of stylistic confusion that comes from trading surprisingly authentic Blaxploitation for the animation style of Boondocks.
The first full-length episode doesn’t focus on the one strongly drawn character like the film, instead branching out in order to cover other minor characters and references to contemporary culture. That’s where tonight’s plot comes in, centering on an alternate history of The Jackson 5. In the Black Dynamite version, Joe Jackson isn’t the physically and emotionally abusive father figure berating his sons for a tiny mistake on Soul Train. Instead, it’s the pint-sized Michael who wields power with an iron fist. When Black Dynamite posse member Cream Corn bursts into the Jackson dressing room and happens upon Joe finally standing up to Michael, Cream Corn takes a bullet in the ass to protect Michael, earning his trust and sending Joe to prison.
Aside from flipping the child abuse script to make Michael the dominating force over the Jackson 5 instead of his father, the show basically throws every possible tidbit of pop culture information about the King of Pop into twenty minutes regardless of anachronisms. This childhood version of Michael Jackson moonwalks, records with Quincy Jones, and frolics around Neverland with Cream Corn, effectively mashing thirty years of pop history into a few minutes to laugh at the elaborate setup before a surreal revelation.
Black Dynamite takes a popularly held idea—that Michael Jackson acted as though he was from another planet—and takes it to its illogical extreme: Michael Jackson wasn’t Joe Jackson’s biological son, but a half-alien wearing blackface and a prosthetic nose to cover up his ghostly white, off-putting visage. Black Dynamite gives the extra-terrestrial Jackson a lot of advice: he should change his face gradually over time to the actual pasty complexion underneath, giving the public time to adjust; and Dynamite suggests that Jackson take up a charitable cause, planting the seed for his obsession with children. Most of the jokes are centered around a cultural understanding of Michael Jackson’s career and pitfalls, instead of the Blaxploitation plot structure that saw Black Dynamite forced to join forces with The Man for one last case, using his kung-fu mastery to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of drug dealers. The martial arts undercurrent is still there in the background, but the fight scenes are truncated, with most of the running time devoted to poking fun at the fallen King of Pop.
Without the affectionately constructed spine of Blaxploitation style, the show is a lot of cultural references thrown around too little of the title character, the reason for an animated show in the first place. Black Dynamite shows up to save the day with his crew, but the vast majority of the comedy comes from tapping into popular knowledge about Michael Jackson. It’s certainly silly and clever, which will be enough for some. But it doesn’t capture the same endearingly bizarre spirit of the film. This Black Dynamite is a slightly watered-down version of the cult film, offering small doses of screwy comedy, but not enough of what made Black Dynamite such a delightful character to champion.
- After Cream Corn ditches his getaway car responsibilities to dance on television, “nobody is allowed to go to Soul Train and take a bullet for a motherfucker without Black Dynamite’s expressed written consent.”
- Michael singing his appreciation for Cream Corn in a song to the tune of “Ben” was pretty hilarious.
- Cream Corn wants to leave Black Dynamite’s Whorephanage to live at Neverland: “Ain’t nothing here but a bunch of whores and orphans anyway.”