In anticipation of the upcoming premiere of Black Dynamite: The Animated Series on Adult Swim, I had a chance to talk with actors Michael Jai White, Byron Minns and Kym Whitley, as well as executive producer Carl Jones.
Based on the 2009 cult film of the same name, the half-hour series revives its title character, an ex-CIA agent-turned-crusader for justice who fights against kung-fu masters, drug-dealing pimps, and “the man.”
Unlike the movie, the series doesn’t mock or mimic the shoddy production values of 70s Blaxploitation films, opting instead for a sleeker animated look and feel. Still, it features a lot of the same elements, including racy imagery and colorful language. For instance, its hero bides his time running a “whorephanage,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
Whitley, who voices the character of kind-hearted prostitute Honey Bee, says the daring decisions are all made in the name of laughs:
“People take things very heavy, and they do it because of the generations before. As black people and as women we’ve been through a lot. But at the same time, it’s a cartoon, and anything can happen in it. It’s going to offend. But as an artist, if you spend your time trying to please everyone, your product will fall apart and you will please no one. So you shoot for it, you go for the funny, and see what sticks.”
The writers and cast also seem ready for any criticism that comes their way. Said White, who voices Black Dynamite, “I don’t mind it at all because this is a commentary on the time period. In the 70s, these were the heroes. People like Shaft, Super Fly and all these guys who had to make their way in any way they could. It was a real situation where men were coming back from Vietnam. That’s why these are iconic characters.”
Carl Jones, who also produced Freaknik: The Musical and The Boondocks, faced similar criticism over stereotypes when the latter came to Adult Swim:
“People used to have a problem with [The Boondocks’] Uncle Ruckus. And I feel like they should have a problem that Uncle Ruckuses exist, not a problem with the fact that we’re allowing people to see that these people exist. This was an era where pimps, whores, and hustlers thrived. And Black Dynamite is the opposite of that. He’s actually trying to stop some of the things that are going on in the community. So I just want to be honest and true to that era, and if someone has a problem with it, it’s a reality.”
As for the differences between the TV show and the film, Minns, who co-wrote the original feature, says to expect a more in-depth look at each character in the series:
“We were very respectful of the characters that we originally created. But the thing that makes the animated series special is that we’re able to delve into the characters in full. In the series, it’s like we have 10 movies and now we get to see who these people are in different situations, and it takes it so much further than we could in just one film.“
White added, “Of course it’s a different pace, and [in animation] your characters have to be larger than life. But the essence of the characters is still there. That strange family unit is still evident in the cartoon. It’s a whole lot of fun.”
With the series, there’s a definite attempt to weave relevant themes into the humor. As mentioned in a prior post, Eddie Griffin guest stars as the voice of Richard Pryor in an episode that spins the facts of his life to comment on broader issues of race, albeit in an outlandish way. According to Minns, Pryor is one of several iconic figures that will appear in the series:
“We have 10 crazy episodes. Because it’s set in the 70s, we explore every 70s icon that we could come up with. And that’s the beauty of animation, we can have these people as guest stars on our show. We can bring back Elvis, we can see little Michael Jackson.”
“We’re re-writing history every chance we get,” Jones added.
Regarding audience, the show is expected to appeal mostly to young white males, many of whom were fans of the original film. Minns also looks forward to the opportunity to reach a wider black audience that seemed not to catch onto the movie until after it left theaters:
“With the film, somehow with the way it was marketed, it never actually made it into the black community. And so an audience that would have been a shoe-in for it was absent. But somehow through video all of a sudden, anywhere I go people say, ‘We wish we would have known this was in theaters at the time.’”
Above all, the team is hopeful that the Black Dynamite serieswill resonate with lots of different groups. Jones explained:
“The music of that time period, the colors, the styles, a lot of things that young people can get out of it because the point of view is very young and fresh. But it’s also set in a world that’s familiar to people that are 40 and 50 years old. So to me, it plays on so many different levels. There’s a whole audience of fans that love the anime action, and they’ll get something out of it that way. Chappelle’s Show, Boondocks and that type of social commentary - they’ll also get that from it. So there are many ingredients that make it palatable for just about everybody.”
“I think it’s going to be off the chain!” said Whitley.“I did not know Black Dynamite was going to be so popular. These are deep-rooted fans, and they follow what’s going on. So I think the series is going to be a hit.”
The Black Dynamite team will next travel to San Diego Comic-Con this month for a series of panels, signings, and a special screening.
Black Dynamite: The Animated Series premieres July 15 at 11:30pm on Adult Swim.