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Black Dynamite: “The Wizard Of Watts”

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Kevin Johnson: So is Black Dynamite the new The Boondocks?

This is an interesting question, but arguably the wrong one. The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder’s comic strip-turned-TV-show, was a contemporary observation of modern racial disparities, an aggressive, biting satire of black culture and politics of today within the broader white hegemony. Black Dynamite, on the other hand, is primarily based on the parody blaxsploitation film of the same name. The movie is a hilarious, pitch-perfect breakdown of similar films of the 1970s, but the show obviously couldn’t rehash that kind of material. So creators Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, and Scott Sanders focused on the burgeoning and historic black identity that emerged within that era, the kind of identity that gave rise to blaxsploitation films in the first place—primarily filtered through Black Dynamite himself.

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That pretty much prevents Black Dynamite from engaging in the kinds of topics that The Boondocks mostly excelled at (barring a few episodes and the entire final season). The sudden rise of the show’s popularity and interest, however, was fortuitous: an episode that focused on Bill Cosby aired right during the exposure of the comedian’s (alleged) past sexual assaults. The episode, smartly I believe, avoided most sexual-assault jokes (save for a few visual gags), focusing on Cosby’s constant haranguing of black culture to (if you permit me to go for the easy joke), “stop with the hipping and the hopping” and “better” themselves.

There’s a lot to be said on that topic, but I’d like to discuss this finale and the show as a whole. To me, Black Dynamite was at its best when it deconstructed Black Dynamite himself and the very concept of the “unbreakable black male,” the perfect “specimen” of African-American masculinity that makes all the women swoon, could kick everyone’s ass, never bowed to the (white) Man, and never smiled—the Gary Stu of black America. The first season did this wonderfully, with episodes dedicated to his stoic relationship with Christmas, the Whorphanage kids, comedy, his CIA past, and white America. The second season, while funny, seem to lack that character drive, what with dropping Dennis Flynn and the intriguing backstory involving Black Dynamite’s neglectful parents, and doubling down on broader cultural/historical topics.

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I feel like this finale was retooled to capture the current atmosphere in the wake of the Ferguson/NYC grand jury decisions, which I kind of think was a mistake, dropping the more interesting aspects of the “Black Dynamite mythos” and becoming an anachronistic satire of the racial zeitgeist (writer-director Carl Jones denies this, but the references to chokeholds and Roger Sterling clearly indicate at the very least last-minute rewrites). If the show mixed that with established character developments, I’d be more excited, but now it’s just well animated commentary. That being said, “The Wizard Of Watts” is hilarious, if scattered, fitting finale to a hilarious, if scattered, season.

Eric Thurm: “Well-animated commentary” sounds pretty good to me. Maybe we’re just looking for different things from Black Dynamite, but I’ve really preferred this wackier, much less coherent season to the first. Not every show needs to do incisive, character-based storytelling, and especially not animated shows, which give writers a lot more leeway to have characters be (sorry) thinly drawn. Black Dynamite is starting with archetypes that were paper-thin caricatures from a parody already, so beyond an infrequent episode that manages to do something special with them, I’m not sure I’d even want it to be more heavily serialized, in that way at least.

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But the cultural vortex that Black Dynamite has created this season has been something to behold. I’m never sure if any given episode—say, the one where the black community enslaves white people, or the one where Chance The Rapper plays Bob Marley—is the best thing I’ve ever seen, or the worst, so gleeful is the show in pushing boundaries and shoving its influences down your throat, something it does with aplomb in “The Wizard Of Watts.” The sheer number of ridiculous things going on in the episode are probably the best thing it has going for it. When the trailer promises Tyler, The Creator voicing a horny version of Toto and Erykah Badu playing Hoe Crows, that level of insanity is the most important thing a Black Dynamite musical has to deliver.
And deliver it did—beyond the “blacker” version of The Wiz (an awesome musical I was in a production of once as a kid), “The Wizard Of Watts” pulled out all the stops, ranging from Magic Johnson replacing the Wizard to the surprisingly effective introduction of Donald Sterling as the “real” Wizard to Tyler, The Creator’s growling, amusing voice work at Broto (I really wish he would stick around, leavening the cast a bit so that Bullhorn and Cream Corn wouldn’t feel so boring). One other place the show’s vulture aesthetic stuck out to me: the use of songs like “Rapper’s Delight” as the basis for the music that padded out this double-length Black Dynamite. Those songs, in particular, struck me as indicative of what the show was trying to do. It’s definitely the closest the show has come to the heights of the original Black Dynamite theme song. What did you think of the musical aspect of the episode?

Kevin: Before I discuss the music, I do want to mention that as someone who watches a lot of cartoons, I love “wacky.” In fact, once I gotten used to this season’s direction I’ve quite enjoyed it, with “American Band Standoff” and “Diff’rent Folks, Same Strokes” being some of my favorites of either season (although nothing will really top the perfect Richard Pryor breakdown, “Taxes And Death.”) I’ll admit that I was disappointed that the show dropped its minor forays into character development, which probably would’ve gone a long way to improving the cachet of Bulhorn and Cream Corn, but if Black Dynamite continues to go hard and fast with that kind of insane approach to black culture as a whole, then I’m fine with that.

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Which brings me back to “The Wizard Of Watts,” an episode that was somewhat forced to follow through with the generic Wizard of Oz beats before it could let loose in the second half with the absolute batshit crazy scenes that even Base Head probably isn’t used to. The music, in particular, was attuned perfectly to the episode’s direction, a combination of both purposely bad and good tunes that, regardless of quality, had me laughing and rolling my eyes (in a good way). Strangely enough, the sound mix was off on my end, with the singing voices suddenly drowning out as the instruments started, which somewhat killed my enjoyment, but the Base Head’s “Rappers Delight” parody was incredible, as well as Roscoe’s number involving “No Fucked Up Food.”

Of course, we’ll have to discuss the episode’s approach to the biggest and most important issue of the day: the police brutality. In some ways, “The Wizard of Watts” is a reflection of the first episode of the season, “Roots: The White Album,” in which “Black Community” is so wracked by a cultural, controlling “white” force that they can’t help but go to extremes to attack, well, everything. Both episodes have Black Dynamite taking a “hands-off” approach as Black Community loses its collective shit against a white force that doesn’t really care, as evidenced by the one officer who was going to beat lil’ Orphan Rodney King for “no good reason.” It’s South Park-ian in its approach, where reason goes out the window and replaced with outlandish chaos. But Black Dynamite isn’t lazy; it understands anger and escalation as part of the unfortunate struggle, and even with some of the rioters engaging in abject violence, never does it suggest not to fight back, particularly against a group that isn’t afraid to use force, specifically because they can get away with it. Like the intersection between the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X roads, the conflict will always have its two sides (and here’s hoping Selma forces people to understand this). Do you think the episode’s approach to police brutality worked?

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Eric: I’m not sure how much I can say whether “The Wizard Of Watts” “works” as a commentary on police brutality–it’s a manifestation of a systemic problem too big to fully grasp within a specific piece of pop culture, let alone one this silly. (And it doesn’t help that I’m hesitant to make any pronouncements about the issue.) But I will say I was pleasantly surprised by the episode, in that it wasn’t as on-the-nose as I expected it to be, and didn’t try to be “about” police brutality for the jokes (thanks, Carl Jones). I really don’t even think there was that much overt treatment of police brutality beyond the character of the Wicked Bitch Of The West Side, which was useful iconography that didn’t require too much explanation. (Though the use of filming police offers as kryptonite to brutality seems sadly naïve—the Wicked Bitch would likely never be indicted or face real consequences.) The other big thing was the Orphan Rodney King stuff, which worked, for me, because it hit that point of ridiculousness quickly, establishing a historical frame for “The Wizard Of Watts” without dragging the joke out.

And, like you said, the end of the episode does a lot to win over viewers. Though the idea that Black Dynamite is the real hero and all-powerful wizard of his own hallucination is a little obvious, it’s still really enjoyable to see him puzzle it out with his friends, in an homage to arguably the best scene from the movie. And though it never explicitly comments on this, Black Dynamite doesn’t shy away from the discomfort of the idea that Black Dynamite is the only person keeping everyone from chaos. The show’s monolithic “Black Community” is, to some extent, ridiculous, a fantasy world almost as ridiculous as OzWatts, which makes it easier for Jones and the rest of the creative team to comment on things by leaving them out of the show’s version of reality. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Donald Sterling’s appearance.

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The “future former” owner of the Los Angeles Clippers’ evil revelation is actually quite blunt and powerful: The perception of minorities is warped by pop culture, and the cultural elements of racial tension are often a mask for or are shaped by cold, economic incentives that lead to oppression. And even if those economic disadvantages were overthrown through political action and collective organization, another disenfranchised group would likely replace black people at the bottom of the totem pole. That’s some cold, hard truth. In some respects, it mirrors the success of Adult Swim’s Infomercial series, which derive much of their punch from being designed to surprise unsuspecting people awake watching Adult Swim at 4 AM. Where The Boondocks was explicitly and consistently presented as a piece of political art, Black Dynamite manages to surprise with political commentary presented in between off-key singing and horny dogs voiced by shock rappers. And that’s pretty special.

Kevin’s Episode Grade: B

Eric’s Episode Grade: B-

Kevin’s Season Grade: B+

Eric’s Season Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • That Frog Kurtis’ appearance somewhat supports my argument for a bit more development in the character department. JB Smoove’s awesome, stuttering, well-hung puppet has a close connection to Black Dynamite, and with the events of the episode taking place in his head, it would have been awesome to have dilemma, at the very least, pointed out. I’m certainly not expecting Ventures Brothers’ levels of continuity, but I think Carl Jones and his creative team could really have some fun with it. [Kevin]
  • I like the thought of the show accumulating random cultural detritus and using it whenever it wants to shorten the time it needs to set up jokes. Probably the biggest problem the show has right now is that it sometimes goes too long without a punchline, and recurring characters would help that a lot. [Eric]
  • Black Dynamite driving the car with his feet, Flintstones style, was wonderfully ridiculous, especially while he was still steering the wheel. Black Dynamite’s willingness to just go for the dumb joke (like referring to Warner Bros. as “Warn-A Brother”) is incredible. [Kevin]
  • This is sort of why I’m a fan of the show but still very much on the fence. I can never tell if it’s so dumb it’s genius, or just kind of dumb? I’d be happy with it continuing to ride that line and confuse the hell out of me for a couple of years.
  • The Magic Johnson stuff reminded me of Wizard Kelly, the former basketball-player-turned-faceless-corporate-king from Disney’s The Proud Family, which seems to have been mostly wiped from Disney’s history. I’m not sure why; it wasn’t a great show but it was a ballsy one, and it’s worth revisiting. [Kevin]
  • Between this show, The Boondocks, The Eric Andre Show, Loiter Squad, and Black Jesus, somehow Adult Swim has become the place for experimental, outlandish, and unique approaches to “black comedy.” Who ever saw that coming? [Kevin]
  • Who indeed? [Eric]

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