The Bold Satirical Silliness of Black Dynamite

Photo: Apparition

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

At every step, the 2009 blaxploitation parody film Black Dynamite is elevated by the committed performance (and jacked physique) of co-writer and lead Michael Jai White. White is a dedicated martial artist, and he brings that energy to the ass-kicking and booty-getting Black Dynamite. The braggadocio of the character is backed up. The film works in part because the silliness rests comfortably atop White’s pecs.

Black Dynamite is the story of an ex-CIA kung fu master who gets back in the game in order to avenge his brother. Through this quest, he meets and falls for community organizer Gloria (Salli Richardson), gets drugs out of the ghetto, and uncovers a conspiracy to emasculate all Black men — a conspiracy that goes all the way to the White House. Black Dynamite is fun, loose, and silly as hell. It’s no wonder, then, that comedian Matt Braunger loves it. Braunger is a silly goose himself, and he uses his newest special, Doug, to bring silliness to those who need it. “I want people to be able to sit and watch this hour and just forget,” he says. “I want it to be one of those things you gather ’round: ‘Let’s have people over, let’s watch Doug.’” Braunger talked about his love of Black Dynamite and kung fu movies, his special, and the rise of hecklers in post-COVID comedy.

What drew you to Black Dynamite?
It’s almost a perfect satire because it feels like the real thing. And it revels in the absurdity of the blaxploitation era. Everything about it: They nail the self-importance, the revolutionary “Aren’t I cool”-ness of them, the incredibly slow pacing. The only thing I had seen like that was I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, but that felt like a movie of its era, whereas Black Dynamite feels like, Oh, someone found this videotape on their dad’s shelf. It’s so ridiculous, and it knows it’s ridiculous.

Were you already a fan of kung fu and blaxploitation movies?
It wasn’t until college when I really saw all of them. I remember we’d watch Shaw Brothers movies, obviously Bruce Lee, or in the modern era the Jet Li stuff set in period China as well as all the Dolemite movies. Shaft was almost too mainstream, but, like, Cleopatra Jones and Coffy and Petey Wheatstraw.

My friend Larry and I would do this thing where we would get uncomfortably high, sit in his dorm room, have a Shaw Brothers or Dolemite movie on, and have dancehall reggae playing all the way up and a strobe light. For some reason, with that level of stonedness, it worked. It’s one of those things that I’ve tried to talk about in my act, but it’s so unrelatable. People would just wander into Larry’s dorm room. I remember there’d be a guy standing there with a beer like, “Hey, what are you guys doing? [Short pause.] I’m gonna go!” Just immediately. Yeah, that was uncomfortable for everyone.

But movies like that, they’re just cartoons. They’re so big, they’re so over-the-top even if they’re dealing with actual realistic modern themes that everybody deals with.

I mean, Black Dynamite literally got turned into a cartoon, so there you go.
Exactly. And it’s a great cartoon, but it’s also a lot darker than the movie is. It’s a lot more serious, which is not a bad thing.

How do you feel about the parts of Black Dynamite that are intentionally bad, like when there’s a boom mic in the shot?
Off the top of my head — I could be wrong — but they only do it twice, and they pick their moments perfectly. Black Dynamite stands up suddenly from a desk and you see the boom mic. And then when Black Dynamite has beaten up all the guys in Chicago Wind’s pool hall, and Bullhorn is like, “I’ll take care of him.” It’s just him and this guy who looks formidable. They’re about to fight, and he slaps the guy and it looks like an accident. The actor goes “Motherfucker!” and it cuts, and there’s a new guy. I love that idea that that guy did not know how to stage fight at all, so he actually slapped a guy across the face. Which is just an incredible insult, and it hurts. It stings! I just love that. The guy realizing he got slapped and he’s like, The fuck? This isn’t worth it. You’re paying me what? I like those two especially. But if they kept doing it, it would take you right out, and that would be annoying.

Speaking of the fights, Michael Jai White sells the shit out of all of them. He knows his form and can make his leg go up so high.
He’s the real deal. I remember Roy Wood Jr. took this video of him where Michael is standing next to a heavy bag and he’s like, “Now, see, one thing you’ve got to try is a side kick,” and he side-kicks it so fast and so hard that the whole weight bag swings. And Roy is talking about how badly your leg would break or hurt or how far you’d fly if he actually kicked you like that.

I was just thinking this morning about how much time and effort he’s probably put into his training. Like, he’s an actual scary martial-arts guy, for sure. It wouldn’t have worked if he wasn’t and if he didn’t have the sense of humor about all of it that he clearly does.

I get a sense that the other writers are writing stuff just to see if Michael Jai White can do it. Like, if you have a friend who can do stunts, you make them do stunts for your entertainment.
Oh, absolutely. We did actually have a friend who was a circus guy. He could walk on tightrope, he could juggle fire, he could do backflips. And anytime there was a party we’d be like, “Mike, c’mon! C’mooon!”

It’s incredible that the grand conspiracy is deduced from a classic Batman-style word association.
So funny. I remember watching that scene and going, That scene must have been really fun to write. 

They all know the year zodiological astronomy was created by the Greeks.
And the Greek and the Roman names for various gods — like, that’s a casually known thing in the place. And, at the same time, the guy who used to sell chili and donuts goes, “Chicken and waffles, that’s it!” and runs away.

Definitely didn’t expect an origin story for Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in this movie.
It’s got so many things firing. One reason this movie is underrated, along with a movie like Top Secret!, is the silliness. I love the pure silliness.

Speaking of silliness, another scene where there’s intentionally bad production values is when Black Dynamite and Chicago Wind are having a car chase. It’s on a bridge in DTLA, but all the rear-projection driving shots are of the coast.
Of, like, Big Sur. Chicago Wind is just looking back and talking to himself, not watching the road at all. You know what’s coming: He’s gonna drive off a cliff. An absurdly high cliff.

Tell me about your newest special.
It’s something that I was set to record in early 2020, and we all know what happened there. All the penis-joke emporiums closed down. Luckily, my wife had a baby, and I became a stay-at-home dad. It was a perfect time for that.

Over that year, I took a huge chunk of that special and threw it out the window. I started writing more about what I was going through and the absurdity of it. There’s not any COVID material, but we did pick up and drive our 6-week-old 3,300 miles across the country from Los Angeles to Boston during the pandemic. Then it gets into a flashback to what I call my “garbage days” as a single guy in Chicago. It culminates in the story of Doug, who the special is named after, who was a horrible man I met while on vacation with my wife. I think men especially need good examples in our lives, but Doug drove home the point that we need bad ones too. I met Doug and I thought, I can never be you, dude. He had everything. He was definitely wealthy. Had three kids and a wife. But he was pretty miserable, an a-hole, and judgmental.

The end is kind of a magic trick, where I use someone from the audience, and I got the best one I’d ever had the night we taped. People would film it and put it on Instagram. And, at the end of every night or weekend, I’d be putting out fires asking people to take it down. They all did. A big thank-you to all those people.

Have audiences changed at all post-lockdown? I feel like people forgot how to act in public for a little bit there.
One thing that’s on the rise now is heckling. I’ve talked to a lot of my friends, and we’ve all had that. I had two guys I had to throw out at a show, and that never happens. I always just roll with it. I’ll make fun of them, give them a little bit of leeway, then shut it down. Usually the person wises up, but these guys would not stop. I finally was like, “You guys gotta go.” That didn’t rattle me as much as when I found out the guys were in their 50s. If I were a betting man, I would have lost money that night because I could have sworn they were late 20s, early 30s. It’s the Twin Cities, it’s a drinking culture — that’s fine. But these guys were fucking annoying. I heard they were at the bar later, bitching about how, back in the day, comics used to be able to handle anything.

I don’t know what it is. I was talking to Tom Thakkar and he brought up how when you go to Instagram and TikTok, it’s all crowd-work videos.

I was going to blame that, but I don’t think the 50-year-olds are on Instagram reels.
You can blame some of it on that, for sure. But I like the crowd-work videos because it shows a moment in time that is unique. And comics don’t have to burn material that way.

The thing is most people who go to a comedy show hate hecklers. It’s annoying; it disrupts everything. After kicking those guys out, I did ten minutes on how awkward and uncomfortable you feel as an audience member when someone is heckling. They make the same face that people make when I’ve done festivals and the mic is hot and there’s feedback. That’s the same face people make when there’s a heckler.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Bold Satirical Silliness of Black Dynamite