Did you ever have an idea that was so funny you couldn't stop laughing over it? Michael Jai White did. The actor, well known for his work in both the action and comedy genres, was listening to James Brown's song “Super Bad” when he came up with the idea for a spoof of 1970s blaxploitation films. “I couldn't stop cracking up,” he says over the phone.
That idea was Black Dynamite, a low-budget film that grossed less than $250,000 at the box office but became a cult hit. Now, an animated series based on the film is set to premiere on Adult Swim July 15 at 11:30 p.m. The half-hour cartoon features the cast from the original movie back in their roles. Carl Jones, known for his work on The Boondocks, is the executive producer.
White was in Bulgaria shooting a movie when Black Dynamite first popped into his head, but the concept stuck with him. When he returned from filming, he rented a costume and put together a photo shoot for the character that would become Black Dynamite. “That picture set it off,” he says. “It set the tone of how it looks serious but, underneath the surface, it's ridiculous.”
He showed the photo to a friend, director Scott Sanders, and with $500, they shot a concept video and sent it to a producer. “He was kind of confused,” White recalls. “Why were we sending him this old blaxploitation trailer?” The two explained that the guys in the clip were actually White and Tommy Davidson. This wasn't an old movie, it was just made to look like one.
White quickly brought in his friend Byron Minns, whom he calls “a walking encyclopedia of blaxploitation.” They wrote the script and made the movie on a small budget.
What helped push Black Dynamite over the top was its adherence to the stylistic conventions of 1970s film. “I think movies make a mistake using modern technique to shoot an old movie,” says White. For this team, making Black Dynamite look like it's a 40-year-old film was crucial. As White explains, “Then you can't help but be transported back to that time.”
Minns quickly gave a breakdown of the process director Sanders used to make the film. It was shot in 16mm. Then, thanks to a process called color reversal, the team was able to match up old stock footage in post-production. In essence, if you're watching Black Dynamite, you're watching a movie where the past met with the present.
When Black Dynamite had its midnight screening at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2009, White and Minns could see how enthusiastic reaction was to the film. Minns recalls about 300 people waiting outside for a spot inside the theater. White remembers people cheering in the middle of the film. Later on, they would hear about people dressing up in retro garb to check out Black Dynamite in France and the U.K. People were doing the same thing in the States, in places like California and Texas. “It was becoming like The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” says White.
As for the cartoon series, both White and Minns are still involved as producers and writers. They also will be voicing the characters of Black Dynamite and Bullhorn, respectively. For White, taking on an animated version of the character he made famous in the film had its challenges. Trained in martial arts, White was able to bring a physical element to his film performance that he says was more difficult when simply relying on his voice. “I had to make sure that all the nuances are in there verbally,” he says.
Minns says he never would have noticed those difficulties while watching White in the booth. “As soon as we got in there, it seemed like it was second nature to hit those notes the way they should be hit,” he adds.
Fans of the movie should take note, much of what we will see animated Black Dynamite do is inspired by the physicality of White's performance. “Carl Jones told me that he would watch movies of mine and basically mimic a lot of movement for the cartoon,” White says. “I didn't realize that he was going to do that.”
Last year, Adult Swim aired the pilot for the series on its website and Black Dynamite became one of San Diego Comic-Con's breakout hits. The team is returning to the mega-convention this year and White and Minns indicate that there will be some surprises. Given that their panel is scheduled to take place two days before the series premieres, it's safe to say this will be one of the SDCC events you'll want to attend.