The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Paranormal Activity" and "Black Dynamite" (2009)

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Wow. Made for what, sixteen thousand dollars? That isn't the catering budget for one day of a major film production. This kind of thing makes me VERY happy that the public has accepted High-Def video as a means of relating intensely 1st-Person stuff like "Blair Witch" or even "Cloverfield". If you accept the conceit, and the filmmaker has something to say, you can unleash creativity without being constrained by budget concerns. And in several cases, it's worked GREAT. This is one of them. The tale of two very normal people, Katie and Micah, who are increasingly disturbed by poltergeists, and decide to video the disturbances. What is happening to them as they sleep?

Because we rapidly believe these two, the smallest interruptions in their lives looms like a descending tornado in your typical Hollywood film. This is sweaty-palm stuff, if you let it in. And by the end of the film, when they let you have it, the average movie-goer has surrendered to the point that the very modest (but effective) effects representing the largest manifestations are seat-jumping oh-my-god level. Because you believe in the people. The most frightening movie I've seen this year. I'm going to give it an "A" for originality and resourcefulness. If the same move were a 30-million dollar star vehicle, I'd give it a "B."


"Black Dynamite" (2009)

"You can hit the streets, or the sheets. You can go, or you can come." DAMN, this movie was funny. Not consistently so, but I had more belly-laughs in the first half than I'd had in a very long time. Drags a little in the middle third, then picks up beautifully. A spoof of the 70's Blaxploitation genre starring the insanely gorgeous Micheal Jai White in a straight-faced homage to Jims Kelly and Brown, with references to more fun (and terrible) movies than you can shake a stick at, "Black Dynamite" follows the adventures of the eponymous invulnerable badass as he strives to avenge the death of his brother, leaving a trail of shattered bodies and satisfied ladies in his wake. Jeeeeeze, this was fun. As I've said, it is satirizing a genre of ultra-cheap movies, and that helps cover the fact that they had few resources to work with. But serious kudos to all concerned. If you ever loved "Shaft" , "Superfly", "Slaughter," "Three the Hard Way," or even "Enter the Dragon" there is much to admire here. If you didn't, it might be a "B-". But if you did, another "A." It's been a good weekend.



It's impossible for me to talk about "Black Dynamite" without speaking a bit about the genre it spoofs. For about five years, from about 1970 to 1975, a unique thing happened: black men were actually presented onscreen as human beings, for the only time in American history. The full spectrum was there: from clowns to saints, from cops to robbers, from pimps to pushers and from vigilantes to judges and lawyers. And they were just as highly sexual as their white counterparts. It is truly bizarre to me that you can have NO black sexuality onscreen for decades, and then if I complain about Will Smith not getting laid, someone will say "do you think it's to avoid the Black Superstud film stereotype?" What? Are we kidding? WHAT black superstud stereotype? Do you honestly mean a handful of cheap movies made thirty years ago somehow balances the endless "white superstud" stereotypes we get every single year, every single day, on every channel and at every cinemaplex? Apparently, even those fleeting images were devastating to SOMEBODY's psyche. Wow. Any black penis at all is obviously far, far too much.

And here is where "Black Dynamite" raises some interesting questions. There are two sequences one might reasonably consider sexual. One is at the beginning, where Black Dynamite is pleasuring multiple foxy ladies at the same time. And during the entire sequence, he never appears in the same shot with them. There are moaning women, and there is a bronco-riding Dynamite...but never the two together. Hmmm.

Then later there is a romance between Dynamite and a local community leader. They have one kiss...and then they cut to a hilarious animated sequence. Remember that Zodiac poster with people screwing in every possible position? That's it, and it really is funny. is also an avoidance of sexual imagery. Was it done for fun? Accidentally? Were they aware that they were avoiding a land-mine of cultural aversion? Making a statement? A commercial decision? It is so odd, and I wouldn't notice it if there weren't such a pattern. In every individual case from "I Am Legend" to "Pelican Brief" to "Bad Boys" there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the characters aren't sexual. It is only when you look at the range of this bullshit, for more than thirty years, that you realize you cannot listen to the explanations, and must start looking for something behind the conscious or public reasoning.

I honestly don't know. My suspicions: a combination of unconscious aversion (created by generations of clear instruction: "don't go there, or you'll go broke") and a "hey! Wouldn't this be funny?" Which would be true and utterly unremarkable if it weren't part of that damned pattern. I remember "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka"--where the lead finally got the lead lady alone. They kissed once, chastely...and the scene cut. What the hell? I mean's just painful to watch.


Unknown said...

Are we kidding? WHAT black superstud stereotype?

I can see where it could be a factor, though, in at least some people's decisions (and similarly with asexual gay men on the screen). I mean, you're right, of course, that there isn't any black superstud stereotype in movies; the only movie I've personally seen that played with that (and did it well) was Blazing Saddles. But at least some people's conscious thinking on the matter, at least some of the time (and similarly with gay men) may be around avoiding oversexed-in-a-negative-way stereotypes that are part of the culture in general.

Because it strikes me that it's quite easy to make decisions with the conscious goal of going against one stereotype, and fall into another. I think something like that happened in the last King Kong remake, with the black ship captain. I don't remember there being such a role in the earlier King Kong (though, my memory's fuzzy for earlier versions, so maybe I'm wrong). And, since the ship captain was easily the smartest, noblest, bravest person of the lot, he looked, to me anyway, as if he'd been introduced precisely because they wanted to counter racially problematic subtexts already in King Kong. And of course the good and brave and honorable, and black, ship captain got killed by one of the island beasties at a key moment, nobly giving his life in an effort to save the heroine, so the hero could go in and actually be the one to take the heroine home.

Steven Barnes said...

I think most of this stuff can be avoided by actually knowing members of the group concerned: blacks, women, gays, the obese, whatever...and asking them how they feel, what they think. Seeing ourselves in them. Feeling that they have hearts, just like us.

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