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Michael Jai White and His ‘Black Dynamite’ Collaborators on Parodying Michael Jackson and Rewriting History

Michael Jai White and His 'Black Dynamite' Collaborators on Parodying Michael Jackson and Rewriting History

His live-action incarnation may only have scored one
big-screen outing, but blaxploitation badass Black Dynamite is still going
strong on the small screen in cartoon form. Premiering on Adult Swim in the
summer of 2012, the animated “Black Dynamite” — which features the
co-writer/star Michael Jai White of the 2009 cult favorite voicing the titular
hero, whose libido is almost as strong as his roundhouse kick — performed well
enough to get a second season pick-up, with a new batch of episodes scheduled to
debut in October. 

With Season 1 arriving on Blu-ray and DVD July 15, White
and his collaborators on the show, including co-creator and co-writer Byron
Minns (who also voices Black Dynamite’s sidekick Bullhorn) and executive
producer/director Carl Jones, paid a visit to New York. There, they spoke with Indiewire
about animating a character who was already something of a cartoon and how they
plan to raise their game for Season 2.  

How far along is
Season 2 right now?

Carl Jones: We’re
still in production, so most of the episodes are in various stages. We have one
episode that’s ready for delivery and we’ve got five that our fully animated
and are in post. Making each season is about a year-and-a-half process
altogether, so it’s pretty intense. We had generated some ideas for Season 2 episodes
when we were working on Season 1, but there was a small gap between seasons just
for our sanity. 

When you look back at
Season 1, are there things that — knowing what you know about the process now
— that you wish you had done differently? And did that impact the way you
approached the second year?

Byron Minns: I
don’t feel that way. We hit some high marks in Season 1 and we’re endeavoring
to hit some high marks in Season 2.

Jones: It’s more
of an evolution; both seasons are one body that’s just evolving. We were pretty
happy with everything we did in Season 1, we just want to aim higher this year.
There was a lot of experimenting in the first season, partly because we were
still trying to find the right animation studio to handle the style of the
show. We were underequipped to produce the show at the level it needed to be,
trying to make sure we tell stories as cinematically as possible and that the
characters are drawn really well. Unlike a lot of other animated shows made in
the United States, the characters in “Black Dynamite” are real
people. It’s not like “Family Guy” or “Aqua Teen Hunger Force”
where the design is more cartoony and stylized. [Our show] takes a little more
understanding of the human anatomy and a lot of artists aren’t trained to do
that. 

READ MORE: Watch: The Trailer for Adult Swim’s Animated Spin-off of ‘Black Dynamite’

Michael, on the
featurette that’s included on the DVD, you admit that, of the three of you, you
were the least familiar with animation going into the show. Have you learned
more on the job?
 

Michael Jai White:
Yeah. At first, it all went completely over my head. Early on, I was told by
[Adult Swim Senior Executive Vice President] Mike Lazzo that [my performance]
was some of the finest voice acting he’d heard, but it wasn’t until I saw that
married with the image that I understood what he meant. I remember getting an
animatic and it was like a stick figure drawing. Everybody was so happy about
it, but I was like “Okay… These are stick figures doing stuff.” Now
that I’ve see what Carl does, I understand that every little moment that’s not
necessarily funny to me on the page will become [funny] onscreen. So this time
I went in with the understanding that [the humor] is in the nuances and it
becomes really fun to find those moments. In live action, if you don’t shoot
it, you don’t have it. You can’t go back and add something later, like you can
here. 

Jones: We’re not
supposed to go back and add shit. But we do it! All the time. [Laughs]

One of the primary
sources of humor in the movie was spoofing the low-budget trappings of
blaxploitation movies — mismatched cuts, cheap sets etc. etc. — and that
doesn’t really translate to the animated realm. Were you concerned about losing
that aspect of the original “Black Dynamite”?

Jones: Not really,
because in the movie, the characters were so great and the world was defined so
well so there was a lot to pull from already. If the characters were shells or
archetypes, that would be a little different. But they were actually the perfect
family. And that’s the biggest difference between the movie and the series;
here, we get to see them interact more as a group. It’s the main focus of the
show, to bring them together and create this kind of dysfunctional family. We
also tried to turn the ’70s into a universe, not really an era. We never say
what point in the ’70s a particular story is taking place; we just give you the
idea that this is a bizarre world that exists in the ’70s. 

Minns: What we
miss in those specific jokes about continuity errors and such, we gain in being
able to expand the world, because in animation, we’re able to do things like
leave the planet. It was a good trade.

One thing that does
carry over from the movie is how there’s how there’s almost always a conspiracy
at the center of the plot of every episode.

Jones: Within the
black community there’s always conspiracy, but usually those conspiracies are
true! They didn’t come from nowhere; we didn’t just wake up one morning
thinking the white man was trying to destroy us. This was how the country was
built. I think the ’70s were probably the birth of that awareness, when people
started to be more conscious of what was going on in their communities. So they
wanted to point the finger and figure out who this unseen hand was and a lot of
conspiracies come from that perspective. What we usually do for the show is
take an incident from the ’70s involving an iconic figure where we know there’s
a story that everyone is familiar with and then we play around with it. Like,
we know what Bill Cosby is like today, but we can present him as he was in the ’70s
according to us. We can rewrite history in that way.

You’ve already based
episodes around such deceased ’70s celebrities as Michael Jackson and Richard
Pryor. Have any of their surviving family members contacted you to complain
about the way you presented them?

Jones: Just Joe
Jackson! No, I’m playing. I don’t know any of the Jacksons, but for Joe, [that
Michael Jackson episode] was kind of a good look for him. Because Joe’s always
been the villain and he wasn’t that time.

Since you’ve already
tackled Jackson and Pryor, which famous people will be cameoing in Season 2?

Jones: Mr.
Rogers, Bob Marley, Melvin Van Peebles, Don Cornelius, Dick Clark and Woody
Allen. A guy named Jonathan Kite does Woody. He’s on “2 Broke Girls”
and does literally about 60 different voices. In terms of voice actors, we’ve
got J.B. Smoove back, along with Sam Jackson, Mel B, Erykah Badu, Chance the
Rapper and Tyler the Creator.

Even though you’re
playing around with stereotypes that are rooted in blaxploitation, do you ever
worry about taking those caricatures too far?

Jones: I don’t
think we really worry about that too much as long as we’re honest. The goal is
not to caricaturize the ’70s or the black community or anything like that. We’re
just trying to tell stories that are honest, and hopefully they resonate with
people who aren’t even familiar with the era. I always say that I don’t think
the show is even a blaxploitation show, because I don’t think we exploit black
people. I think it’s more white-spolitation show if anything. Like, we did an
episode about Elvis and another about a giant albino gorilla named Honky Kong. We
play into a lot of stereotypes across the board and have fun with them, not
just black stereotypes.

Which cartoons
inspired the look of “Black Dynamite”?

Jones: The look
of the show was inspired by anime director Takeshi Koike and his 2009 film “Redline,”
but I think there’s a little bit of everything in there. I was a huge Chuck
Jones fan growing up, as well as Bob Clampett and Hanna-Barbera. Ralph Bakshi
was also a big inspiration, with films like “Coonskin” and “Cool
World.” I look at everything from anime to “Aqua Teen,” because
if it’s good, it’s good. I have an appreciation for the different kind of
aesthetics you find in animation. For example, “Ren & Stimpy” is
an example of very cartoony limited animation, but we can implement some of the
same ideas because those characters have really good expressions and strong
poses. That’s half of storytelling. 

Michael and Byron,
are you also cartoon addicts?

White and Minns [in
unison]
: No. [Laughs]

Minns: I approach
the series in the same way as making a film in terms of character. That, to me,
is what it’s all about. So I’ve learned working with Carl for these last few
years what animation is and should be and the intricacy of creating all this
stuff, which I’m amazed by. 

White: I can’t
contribute a damn thing. I just know what Carl can do and he continues to talk
over my head about Takeshi somebody. [Laughs]
I’m not in that world. There are certain things I can grab onto; like one thing
I can say is that almost any frame of our show looks like a film poster. You
can freeze frame anything and it looks like a blaxploitation poster. 

How do the recording
sessions work? Are you able to get the cast together in one room?

White: I’m
usually solo, because I’m in and out of the country and state so it would be a
nightmare to have all these busy peoples’ schedules line up. It’s not like a
situation where we’re primarily voice actors and that’s it. We’ve got all these
different stars, so scheduling gets tricky.

Jones: We did one
session at the end of the first season and it was horrible. There were a lot of
very funny people in the room together with a lot of energy. It was basically
like being with a lot of kids! It was hard to get the work done and took twice
as long. But [our recording sessions] are usually very collaborative…

Minns: …after
Carl gets what he wants. [Laughs]

If you could pick a
favorite single Season 1 episode that best represents the show, which would it
be?

Jones: Michael
Jackson. I thought it was pretty smart and took a very different approach to a
Michael Jackson episode. It was really funny and weird.

White: To me, it’s
absolutely Michael Jackson. We satirized the most famous person who ever lived
and if we’re not going to get backlash from that, it speaks volumes. Sometimes,
when something like that works, it doesn’t get the recognition as it would if
it were negative. But the fact that we were able to do that is a great
representation of what we can do. 

 

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AlainD

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