Black Dynamite: Satirising Blaxploitation
I am no film critic; I do not know exactly what makes a good animated tv series nor am I an expert on the blaxploitation genre by any stretch of the imagination. But as someone who is invested and has a professional interest in the representation of black people on the screen, stage and literature, you can count on me to always have an opinion about art that represents us. So, when I randomly discovered one day that Michael Jai White and Adult Swim had teamed up to create a show that appeared to satirise blaxploitation films of the 70s and 80s, I was hugely excited.
That is an image of the titular character, Black Dynamite, armed with a very 70s revolver, afro, moustache and nunchucks. Based on the movie of the same name, the series itself exists in conversation with a genre that hasn't really dominated the silver screen since the 1980s when Hollywood finally started to run out of these blockbusters. But what exactly is the 'blaxploitation' genre? In short, it is a type of film that contains a majority black cast in the sub-genre of action, thriller or crime that attempts to represent the reality of African American communities. They had black male and female leads for the first time in Hollywood's history and had the soundtracks to match their ambition with Isaac Hayes (Shaft), Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly) and Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man) all scoring major motion pictures. The narrative of these films were often the same. They were action packed, the antagonist was always 'the Man' and there would always be some kind of vengeance arc. They were hugely important films. Without a doubt, they paved the way for black film makers to come and carve a space for themselves in an industry that was and is historically stacked against them. But they were not without controversy. Despite its attempt to speak to the reality of urbanite 'Northern' African-Americans and rural 'Southern' African-Americans (a dichotomy which is problematic itself) blaxploitation ended up being criticised by contemporary civil rights organisations for promoting stereotypes. The genre often over-sexualised its male and female characters, equated masculinity with violence and pimping and uncritically presented black communities as drug-filled slums. The operative word there being 'uncritically'. From the 90s onwards, films began to critique the blaxploitation genre in more subversive and less overt ways as the presentation of African-Americans in Hollywood developed but few had really revisited blaxploitation with a satirical lens. A show with the profile created by Adult Swim and the creative department behind it has been long overdue and I could barely contain my excitement when I sat down to watch the first episode.
Having watched the first season, I find myself confused, disappointed and hopeful all at the same time. The show had all the perfect ingredients; the production and writing team was experienced; the arts style, from the hues to the characterisations, was a nice homage; and the music was just, perfect. Black Dynamite has potential to be a great satire, a kind of successor to the Boondocks even, but its humour and fundamental character leaves a lot to be desired. The show appears to rely on the same problematic humour of the past in order to communicate satire. For all the stereotypes that blaxploitation propagated in the past, Black Dynamite dials it up to the extreme, creating something that is both highly provocative and careless. In blaxploitation films, black men and women were over-sexualised so the show gave its titular character a penis so large that it has to be blacked out all the way down to his feet and supporting lead, Honey Bee, a body that the hottentot Venus would be envious of. One episode is even dedicated to the white gaze of black male bodies without any real critique (instead the KKK and Panthers team up to stop an interracial porno???). The extremes don't end there; in response to the stereotype of black men coming from fractured households, Black Dynamite runs a 'Whorephanage' for 'whores and orphans' and has a companion, Bullhorn, who is so deft with words that he can drop women's underwear with his rhymes (I feel like you can hear my eye roll at this point, so, I'll stop now). Towards the end of the season is perhaps one of the laziest episodes of all time with an actual 'race war', which does more to accentuate stereotypes of the 'underhanded' Chinese and the jealous, crazy ex girlfriend with the personification of Black Dynamite's car than make any sort of original social commentary. The show is self-conscious without necessarily doing anything about it. The show knows that Honey Bee is routinely ignored, self referentially poking fun at it but does not go any further with it. In one episode, Elvis hilariously becomes a DEA agent but that plot line doesn't really venture too much further beyond that original inciting conflict.
In summary, it appears that the 70s/80s setting is more of an excuse to indulge in 'edgy' humour that characterises many shows on Adult Swim rather than take the opportunity to be in conversation with the genre the show pays homage to.
Even more bizarre than the meaningless exaggerations are the strange 'inversions' the show employs to make comments on racial and sexual politics. There is a nice take on a racial reading of the King Kong narrative with a white 'Honky Kong' taking Honey bee as a hostage but then the show decides to create a black despot at the heart of the island who is insistent on making everything white so he can rule over an all white dominion. What does this achieve? In the second episode, the show runners portray a pre-teen Michael Jackson as a half-alien half human who abuses other children and adults. Yes, it's exactly as bad and as pointless as it sounds. The free-form structure of the show isn't a problem; it frees up the writers, giving them the scope and the opportunity to poke fun at 70s/80s popular culture and politics but the execution comes across quite lazy and insensitive at times.
Overall, there are some promising moments. The Richard Pryor episode comes to mind as well as parts of the 'Players Ball' and 'Seed of Kurtis' episodes but I leave season one feeling slightly cheated with the promise of something greater than what was delivered. I feel that part of the problem is that the show lacks a satirical philosophy or consistent political voice. A comedy series does not necessarily have to have a 'heart' but it needs to have a principle otherwise it lacks a key structural backbone. You don't get a sense that the series is trying to do anything except run with half-baked plot lines and b grade punchlines. Its ambiguity doesn't make it universal; it makes it a little bit of a mess.