Blacksploitation, it is a weird cinematic genre, and yet it is incredibly important and highly relevant, even today. When many people think of Blaxploitation films, they think of Shaft, Pam Grier or so-bad-its-good 1970s cheese. However, it can be hard to get a hold of some of these films due to their niche appeal. This is where Arrow Video has stepped in to provide a dual format release of a Blaxploitation film that many had not heard of before, Willie Dynamite.
Directed by Gilbert Ross and starring Roscoe Orman (a man who would go on to be on Sesame Street) as the titular Willie Dynamite, the film follows Willie D, a notorious New York pimp. When he rejects a plan to collectivise his business with other pimps, Willie D’s life begins to spin out of control; with police and other pimps gunning for him as well as a prostitute turned social worker (Diana Sands) seeking redemption through the liberation of Willie’s girls. Has the arrogance and pride of one man brought his entire world crashing about his head?
Because I personally haven't seen many Blaxploitation, though I had heard about its reputation, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I thought I would get a so bad its good mishmash of cinematic genres and styles, but I got a modern retelling of Macbeth, complete with the heros downfall. Roscoe Orman sells Willie Dynamite as a cool, collected and cruel individual but is also able to balance that out with moments of genuine vulnerability, because of Willie D's well defined and conveyed character. Diana Sands positively steals the show as social worker Cora, her strength and emotional character reveal and development is a breath of fresh air amongst the slightly more uncomfortable moments of female representation in the film. The other performances are also good fun, they don't have the subtlety of Willie D or Cora, being either prostitutes or overzealous cops, but maybe that is the fault of the writing rather than the actor.
Willie D, like most films of the Blaxploitation, deals with issues in the black community; police bias and political corruption are key themes of oppression in the film. However, while most of the people in power were white in other Blaxploitation films, the fact that Pointer (a black police officer played by Albert Hall) and Cora are themselves African American changes the dynamics of power within the society. Similarly, Willie’s life, while certainly glamorised through the film, is shown to be a dangerous one and eventually his career as a pimp and his hubris bring about his end.
Director Gilbert Moses crafts a New York that is alive and, thanks to cinematography by Frank Stanley, as well as music by J.J.Johnson a legendary Jazz trombonist, you see the grime, corruption and dilapidation and feel the city’s heartbeat. Though Willie D is a larger than life character, the world feels real, and thus his actions have realistic consequences.
The plot does sometimes feel a little overwrought with far to many strands not receiving enough screen time. We want to find out more about Cora and Pointer as well as Willie D. Similarly the cause for Willies demise is left unclear as to whether it was brought about by himself or an unfair system, which somewhat lessens the message I think the film is trying to convey. Finally, Willie D. switches quickly from being the villain of the piece to being a misunderstood antihero a little quickly. All these problems may be the symptoms of the way films were made back in the 1970s, so maybe my 21st-century judgements are not fully applicable.
Despite these plotting problems, Willie Dynamite is a great time. All the actors are clearly having a good time chewing the scenery, the score is upbeat and catchy, and it has a good story buried under some weak plot points. I would highly recommend it.
Willie Dynamite is packaged as a dual format release, with the Blu-Ray being presented in1080p and the DVD version in standard definition. The transfer from the original film print held at MGM has been well done. There are no digital faults with the movie itself, and the process has minimised the analogue damage that was on the print, but what scratches and imperfections remain add to the charm of the film. The audio itself is 1.0 mono (which is uncompressed on the Blu-Ray) and really brings out the best of the score by J.J. Johnson.
Arrow has produced a package that is easy to use and navigate, with easy to access menus and clear subtitles that help those with hearing problems or people unfamiliar with the idioms of 1970s New York a chance to understand what it is characters are saying.
This is perhaps where the release lets itself down; there are only two on the disc. The first being the theatrical trailer which can go some way as a historical artefact, showing how these films were marketed, but film trailers packaged with their films is standard practice nowadays.
The other extra feature on the discs is a short 30-minute documentary hosted by actor and musician Ice-T, called Kiss my Baad Asss. Arrow describe it as a guide to Blaxploitation and features interviews with major figures and academics within the area, like Melvin van Peebles and Isaac Hayes. While it does contain a history of the rise and fall of the type of cinema commonly known as Blaxploitation and its importance to African American culture, that history is all too brief. With Ice-T’s slightly unorganised hosting ability I feel that my questions about the genre where only vaguely answered and I will have to look elsewhere for a more in-depth look at that time in Black cinema.
Willie Dynamite the film and the dual format release from Arrow act as an ideal introduction to the wider world of Blaxploitation. The discs themselves are well made, and though the extras are a little thin on the ground I would argue that it is still a worthwhile addition to anyone already interested in Blaxploitation or, like me, someone who would like to know more.