Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Gilbert Moses
Starring: Roscoe Orman, Diana Sands, Thalmus Rasulala, Juanita Brown
There's been much talk lately of a trio of black-themed films - Fences, Hidden Figures and Moonlight - receiving best picture nominations at this year's Oscars. Such success may lead to a new era of Hollywood movies aimed at African-American audiences, something mainstream American cinema has largely avoided since the '70s, when it briefly attempted to cash in on blaxploitation, a movement kicked off by a combination of black filmmakers wishing to express their frustrations with life in America on screen and huckster producers desperate to fill inner city grindhouse theatres.
1974's Willie Dynamite opens with the very recognisable '70s Universal logo. It was produced by no less than Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who a mere year later would change Hollywood forever with a little movie about three men and a fish.
Such mainstream credentials mean Willie Dynamite differs from the more down and dirty blaxploitation offerings churned out by the likes of Jack Hill in three key areas. Despite taking place in the sex trade, nudity is absent; while female stars like Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson became sex symbols in low budget fare, Hollywood wasn't ready for black flesh. The violence is less extreme but no less present; Hollywood may have balked at depicting black folks fucking, but stabbings and shootings were fine.
Most significantly of all, while the titular protagonist (Roscoe Orman) is a pimp, unlike the criminal anti-heroes of The Candy Tangerine Man and Superfly, here he's portrayed as an outright villain, with a black cop (Albert Hall) and a black social worker (Diana Sands) acting as the film's moral centre as the former attempts to bring him to justice and the latter to reform his criminal ways. White villains are notably absent while positions of power are improbably filled by middle class blacks seeking to educate their ghetto brothers and sisters.
In every other way it's typical, if not classic blaxploitation fare, and it's a rare mainstream entry in the genre to boast a black director in Gilbert Moses, an important figure in African-American theatre who would later helm several episodes of the seminal TV mini-series Roots. There's a funky soundtrack from Jazz legend JJ Johnson, with no less than Martha Reeves providing vocals. And of course there's some outrageous fashion, with Willie sporting outfits that Liberace would reject for being too camp.
The shackles of a studio production and its naive and moralising studio-mandated message mean that to some degree, Willie Dynamite lacks both the entertainment value and social prescience of more hardcore blaxploitation fare, but there's enough to keep devotees of the genre engaged and those pimp outfits really pop in Arrow's hi-def transfer.
Kiss My Baad Asss is a short guide to Blaxploitation from rapper turned prime time TV star Ice T. A very of its time trailer boasts a cracking voiceover - they don't sell 'em like this anymore. The first pressing only features a collector's booklet.
Willie Dynamite is on blu-ray February 6th from Arrow Video.