Michael Jai White has always been one of those “that’s-that-one-guy-you-know-who-I’m-talking-about” actors. Despite a breakout 1995 role as Mike Tyson in the HBO biopic Tyson, and most recently a part in Tyler Perry’s 2007 Why Did I Get Married, Jai White’s face has always been more familiar than his name. But with the release of his latest, Black Dynamite, which hits theaters today, people will definitely remember his name, or at least the one he plays in the film.
Black Dynamite is a spot-on homage to the ‘70s blaxploitation era—a time when movies like Shaft, The Mack and Foxy Brown gave black actors work and black audiences pride. In Black Dynamite, Jai White (who co-wrote the screenplay) is “Black Dynamite,” a former CIA agent seeking revenge on The Man who not only murdered his younger brother, but deals heroin to the orphanage where Dynamite was raised, and floods the ghetto with a malt liquor called Anaconda.
If it sounds absurd, it’s supposed to. From the plot to the costumes, to Jai White’s major Afro, Black Dynamite aims to illuminate every single detail of blaxploitation. In an interview with The Root, Michael Jai White talks about why blaxploitation will never happen again, and why the term Black Hollywood is not only relevant—but still necessary.
The Root: What made you decide now was the time to release this project?
Michael Jai White: There are a lot of things about the ‘70s that were liberating. It was the first time we saw ourselves in heroic-type roles. We had alpha men and alpha women we don’t have today. In movies then, you could say anything—it was just unbridled. You saw true art.
TR: Can the blaxploitation movement be recreated?
MJW: No, I wish it were, but we don’t have any alpha male or female images nowadays. Back in the day, you had Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Billy Dee Williams, it just doesn’t stop. In any white movie, there’s always a dominant white male who’s attractive, smart, gets the women and kicks ass. Well basically, [black people] have one character nowadays that does that and that’s Denzel Washington. And he doesn’t even really do action films.
TR: There’s Will Smith.
MJW: Back in the 1970s, you had your Charlie Bronsons, your Clint Eastwoods, your Steve McQueens, but then you had Bernie Casey, Phillip Michael Thomas, Calvin Lockhart, Jim Kelly. It was kind of on the even keel. I’d encourage people to try to compare Fred Williamson to anybody right now. You’re not going to compare Fred Williamson to Will Smith.
TR: You have seven black belts and you act, what has been your biggest issue, as far as getting the action-hero roles?
MJW: Moviemaking is very corporate, and they go by formulas. There’s this belief that black films don’t do well overseas, which is an absolute fallacy. The response to Black Dynamite is far greater overseas than it is even in this country. We got a standing ovation at Karlovy Vary [International Film Festival] in the Czech Republic.
TR: What does Black Dynamite have to do in order for you to consider it a success?
MJW: It already has been. In my recollection, there’s never been an all-black movie that has gotten a standing ovation anywhere in Europe, much less all the fanfare this movie is garnering. This movie was under $3 million, so it’s already surpassed anything the studio would ever believe. The idea was to just get the money and do the movie we wanted to make because we never thought a studio would understand it first out. I understand how studios think, and I don’t fault them, but I knew a studio wouldn’t get it until it was a completed project.
TR: The blaxploitation era essentially was what people would call Black Hollywood today, which is a term some people dismiss.
MJW: I would agree with you. Black Hollywood kind of existed in the ‘70s. We had actors and actresses who were trained, represented us with dignity and had such an amazing amount of talent. It was revered to be strong and beautiful and smart, back then. I hope we can return to that. Tyler Perry is proof that there is a large audience that has not been cared for, so who’s caring about those people? Besides black Hollywood?
TR: What do you want people to take away from Black Dynamite?
MJW: I want people to have fun. I want it to take away from their problems. I want people to laugh. Take a ride you probably haven’t.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.